As Manchester United lined up the injury-time corner that ended with Pedro clearing Marcos Rojo’s header off the line, David de Gea stood helpless outside his penalty area, at the other end of the field, in front of the Stretford End.
His hands were on his hips and his head was down. He hoped to hear the noise that would signal a winner and an escape from the attention he knew his latest mistake was going to bring. Instead, there was the unmistakeable stifled cheer-turned-groan that signals a moment of hope being dashed.
At the final whistle, the United goalkeeper sought the sanctuary of the post-match melee, shaking hands with anyone close by, embracing Spain international team-mate Pedro before beginning the lonely trudge towards the tunnel, accompanied by a television cameraman which signalled that, once again, he was the story.
The 28-year-old may have preserved United’s faint hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League by blocking Gonzalo Higuain’s close-range effort but, such is the life of a goalkeeper, that moment is not destined to be replayed over and over and dissected in minute detail. Inexplicably spilling Antonio Rudiger’s speculative 35-yard shot to allow Marcos Alonso to squeeze in a Chelsea equaliser most definitely is.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said all the right things afterwards. He still “trusts” De Gea. No-one should “blame him” for dropping points.
“David has been unbelievable for this club,” said the Norwegian. “We support each other. There is no chance anyone can blame him for losing points.
“He knows he could have had that shot, but that is football. David likes to play games. I will have chats with him and he will respond in the right way.”
But the bare statistics tell a stark story.
In 123 games, De Gea, Manchester United’s player of the year in four seasons out of five, made three mistakes that led directly to goals. He has matched that number in his last four matches.
Lionel Messi benefited from the first, De Gea allowing the Argentine’s weak shot from the edge of the area squirm under his body as Barcelona confirmed their superiority in the Nou Camp in their Champions League quarter-final second leg.
On Wednesday, De Gea’s failure to stop Leroy Sane’s shot killed off any hope of a Manchester derby comeback against City. And now Chelsea.
“You think so?” replied Solskjaer, when it was put to him after the game that “surely” it was time to remove De Gea from “the firing line”.
“He is going through a period where he feels he can do better. There is no hiding that. But no-one will point fingers because he has saved us so many times. He is not the reason we are in sixth position.
“His reaction after City was good and I was confident in him. He knows he could do better with their goal but it’s one of those things again.”
Solskjaer’s words will be a comfort to De Gea, as will the vocal backing he received from the United fans, who chanted his name as he made his way off the Old Trafford pitch at half-time.
There is truth in those words too.
After all, it was after United’s victory at Tottenham on 13 January that started to crystallise in the minds of the club’s hierarchy that Solskjaer could become their permanent manager, rather than the short-term antidote to Jose Mourinho he had initially been hired to be.
Solskjaer will not have forgotten De Gea made 11 saves at Wembley that day. Without the former Atletico Madrid man there would have been no victory – and possibly no permanent job for the Norwegian either.
Nevertheless, Solskjaer also knows the problems that can come when the goalkeeping position is not settled. After all, he was a player at United between 1999 and 2006 when Sir Alex Ferguson tried and discarded Massimo Taibi, Mark Bosnich and Roy Carroll among others before settling on Edwin van der Sar as a worthy successor to Peter Schmeichel, allowing United to dominate at home and in Europe once more.
Go back even further and the goalkeeping position was at the centre of one of the most brutal selections decisions Ferguson made as United manager when he axed Jim Leighton after the FA Cup final draw with Crystal Palace in 1990. Les Sealey played as United won the replay. Leighton only played for the club once more – against Halifax – and never truly recovered from the ordeal.
In addition to all this, there is a looming decision to be made about De Gea’s future.
His contract expires in 2020 now United have triggered the option of an additional year on his present deal. Negotiations are yet to come close to a satisfactory conclusion, meaning club and player must decide whether to sever ties this summer, or let talks drag on into next season, raising the real prospect of a major asset leaving for nothing.
United are minded to take the latter route, believing De Gea would prefer to remain where he is and an agreement can be reached.
His current form could tip the balance either way. De Gea might feel he would be better off making a new start elsewhere where he can compete for major prizes, or, feeling the warmth from the dressing room and the stands, his troubles could solidify a desire to remain in Manchester and help the club back to where Solskjaer intends to take them.
United have one more game to play at Old Trafford this season.
Should Solskjaer decided to give Argentina’s World Cup final goalkeeper Sergio Romero a chance for the rest of the season – a player the manager says “has done well every time he has played” – there is a possibility that De Gea was turning out at Old Trafford for the last time.
Out of all the myriad issues Solskjaer thought he was walking into when he became United boss, a major goalkeeping dilemma will not have been near the top of his list.