Allen Hamilton

Manchester United were just starting to have that resilient look of champions again as the clock ticked down at White Hart Lane on Sunday. The Nemanja Vidic-Rio Ferdinand partnership had brought much needed stability in defence, Phil Jones’ return had given fresh energy alongside Michael Carrick in midfield and, of course, Robin van Persie remained in rampant goalscoring form.

Then an ugly reminder of the team’s vulnerability reared its head, drawing attention to the biggest area of concern for Sir Alex Ferguson over the remaining months of the campaign. With Manchester United clinging bravely to a 1-0 lead and the clock ticking down, David de Gea spoiled what was otherwise an excellent goalkeeping performance by flapping weakly at a Benoit Assou-Ekotto cross and leaving his net unguarded for Clint Dempsey to slot home from Aaron Lennon’s square pass.

The clock showed 93 minutes and Ferguson had watched two precious points slip from his grasp, leaving his team’s lead at the top of the table at five points. Had De Gea come out decisively to deal with the danger, the game would have been over.

Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme for the young Spaniard. Whether he is making errors of judgement on crosses amidst a crowded penalty area or palming shots into the path of opposition strikers, De Gea has stood out as Manchester United’s weakest link. Against Tottenham, he made fine saves from Gareth Bale and Dempsey to keep Manchester United’s lead intact, then undid all that good work with his timid late decision.

"Maybe David de Gea could have got a better punch on it, but I will have to see it again", Ferguson generously said post-game.

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, who played in front of Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar, was dismayed and went much further. "He’s got to clear that out of the box and take everything with him", he insisted. "You’ve got to punch that 15 or 20 yards. You think of Schmeichel and Van der Sar – he’s got to get to that level. He knows that; you can see it in his face."

Take nothing away from Tottenham, who refused to throw in the towel and attacked with real pace, but this was the type of game that Manchester United would have clung on to win in the eras of Schmeichel and Van der Sar. And these dropped points could haunt the club later in the season.

To his credit, Ferguson has shown great patience with De Gea, whose price tag of £17.8M looks steeper by the day. There have been signs of improvements this season, including some fine shot-stopping behind an injury-ravaged back four, but too often it is a case of one step forward, two steps back. Championships are won in part based on the trust between defenders and their goalkeeper – and it is hard to expect Vidic and company to have great faith in De Gea when he serves up these shaky moments.

And so, the time has come for Ferguson to move on from the De Gea project before it is too late. Neither the Spaniard nor team-mate Anders Lindegaard have done enough to lock down the number one spot, but the Manchester United boss must surely be considering giving Lindegaard another run in the team before a detailed search of the transfer market in the summer. Names like Liverpool’s Pepe Reina and Stoke’s Asmir Begovic have already been mentioned as possible targets for the January transfer market (both would be eligible for the Champions League). But it seems unlikely that a deal will go through before the end of the month deadline.

The timing of this latest De Gea mistake is intriguing since Barcelona are thought to have put the 22-year-old on their wishlist. La Liga would likely serve up fewer physical games and he might thrive in more familiar surroundings, though overall it is hard to see why the Catalans would be so enticed by De Gea. Nonetheless, their interest might help Ferguson’s transfer dealings.

With their eagerly-awaited tie against Real Madrid slowly moving into view (as well as some must-win Premier League fixtures), Manchester United need to be moving into top gear by February. But, while other areas of the team are falling nicely into place, Ferguson’s goalkeeping conundrum means some sleepless nights ahead.

Betting on football? Check out Inside Bet before you bet!