The young goalkeeper illustrated his talent with a superb save from Chelsea's Juan Mata in added time to preserve a point
David De Gea, whose fitness to succeed Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar is a constant source of debate, reimbursed a chunk of the £18.3m paid for his services by Manchester United when he preserved the 3-3 scoreline so dramatically secured by his team‑mates with a save that conspicuously illustrated the talent identified in the young Spaniard by Sir Alex Ferguson and his scouts.
In the first minute of added time Paul Scholes obstructed David Luiz 25 yards from the United goal, leading Howard Webb to award a free‑kick. Juan Mata, who had played a part in each of the goals that had given Chelsea a 3-0 lead, hit a fantastic 25‑yard free‑kick that was arrowing into the top right-hand corner until De Gea, twisting as he flew across the goalmouth, used his right hand to turn it around the angle of bar and post. Three minutes later, in the final seconds of the contest, the goalkeeper reached up to tip over a furious 25‑yard drive from Gary Cahill which, like Mata's effort, might have restored Chelsea's advantage and reinforced their challenge for the fourth Champions League qualifying place.
Coming from a man who arrived in England with a reputation for conceding goals from long-range shots, and who will undergo an operation this summer to correct a congenital defect in his eyesight, both interventions were enormously impressive. Goalkeepers are paid to have a decisive effect, and in the end De Gea was as influential in the outcome of this high-octane contest as the referee, who was presented with the sort of near-impossible decisions that are becoming more common by the week at the highest level of the English game, and which had both managers hopping around their technical areas in various stages of exasperation.
Chosen to start after Anders Lindegaard had been ruled out by injury, De Gea had begun the afternoon badly, fluffing an attempt to punch a ball that looped up in as crowded goalmouth following a Raul Meireles corner in the sixth minute. It was a weak intervention that seemed to underline all the reservations expressed about the ability of his slender 6ft 4in physique to cope with the power-play of the Premier League. But as Chelsea reversed the run of play and established what looked very much like a winning lead with three goals between the 36th and the 50th minutes, the goalkeeper could not really be faulted for any of them.
The first came when David Sturridge, receiving a clever pass from Mata, brilliantly transfixed Patrice Evra before darting for the byline close to the goal and pulling back a ball that rebounded off De Gea's outstretched leg on to Jonny Evans's chest and back into the net. The second may have represented Stamford Bridge's most enjoyable moment of the season so far, when the hard-working Fernando Torres received the ball close to the right-hand touchline and measured a long, dipping cross that Mata met beyond the far post with a volley of staggering velocity and stunning accuracy. Made in Spain, it was a goal of majestic proportions, and had De Gea managed to get any part of his anatomy in its path he might not have been seen for the remainder of the season. The goalkeeper was similarly blameless when Mata curled in the free‑kick from which Luiz, with the aid of Rio Ferdinand's shoulder, made it 3-0.
Where do they come from, these shuddering thrillers between the top Premier League sides, each one a self-contained scene within a season-long grand opera, occurring with a regularity completely unknown in previous eras? If this match reached half-time as a fractious and unlovely affair, with far too much time and attention expended on listening out for the chants of "One England captain, there's only one England captain" from the John Terry loyalists in the Matthew Harding Stand and "Rio! Rio! Rio!" from the visiting fans in the Shed End, in its final stages the damp fuse finally caught, enabling it to explode like the most extravagant of firework displays.
André Villas-Boas bemoaned what he sees as Chelsea's run of bad luck with referees, and the award of a second penalty to United, when Danny Welbeck stumbled over Branislav Ivanovic's leg, certainly seemed to have been provoked by the United player. In terms of absolute justice, however, there was a strong sense that the contest had rebalanced itself fairly as the champions clawed their way back into the match, driven on by an impassioned Wayne Rooney, whose two spot-kicks were dispatched with even more than the customary measure of violence. "It's almost normal service for them – a big comeback, great desire," the disappointed Villas-Boas said in a courteous tribute to the characteristic Ferguson holds most dear.
At that stage, De Gea could only stand and watch. But in the end he had his part to play, and it was executed with a panache that, for all his evident callowness under certain kinds of pressure, spoke eloquently on behalf of the future Ferguson has in mind for his willowy 21-year-old.