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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Nations League: Chance for David de Gea to dispel Spain's doubts in comforts of home

Manager Luis Enrique right to defend goalkeeper, but time for him to back it up with strong showing against Croatia in Elche
Spain's goalkeeper David de Gea has come under criticism from Spain's fans in recent times. Reuters

“I’ve never had any doubts over [David] de Gea,” new Spain manager Luis Enrique said after his side beat England at Wembley on Saturday in the Asturian’s first game in charge.

“He may have made some mistakes like everyone else, but we have one of the best in the world," he added. "I’m very calm about him, he’s a top-level player, something he has shown in this game and throughout his years in England.

"Going by numbers and performances, he is world’s No 1.”

De Gea needed that ringing endorsement from his new manager. Quite apart from it being correct, it was right for Enrique, who has made a positive impression with Spain’s players, to praise a man who was so criticised in Spain during the World Cup finals.

De Gea’s teammates did not doubt him, but many in Spain did. Saturday’s performance at Wembley will help, as will a good performance on Tuesday night against Croatia.

Ahead of their opening Uefa Nations League game against the World Cup runners-up in Elche, De Gea has been nominated for the 2018 FIFPro World XI alongside fellow goalkeepers Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Keylor Navas, Thibaut Courtois and Gianluigi Buffon.

De Gea may not have won the trophies that all the others have in recent years, but he has been Manchester United’s best player in four of the past five seasons. He is usually the only United player who rival supporters can agree on to be one player they would like in their own team.

Croatia will be very difficult opponents, but De Gea is almost certain to start after impressing at Wembley, although there was a dispute about whether Danny Welbeck’s late goal should have stood since De Gea lost the ball without his former teammate making contact with him.

David de Gea, left, shakes hands with England's Danny Welbeck, his former Manchester United teammate. AP Photo

Spain and Croatia also met in the 2016 European Championship, when De Gea was at fault for Ivan Perisic’s goal. It was such mistakes which led to De Gea being criticised in Spain. A poor World Cup finals only added to that.

De Gea, 27, will return to Elche, a city which is a special place for him. His father Jose is from Redovan, a town of 7,000 close to Elche.

The family would leave the summer heat of Madrid to spend time closer to the coast at Santa Pola near Elche – where they still have a home – and Jose, a goalkeeper himself, always told his son about the local team.

De Gea has been to see Elche play. He has a season ticket and has tweeted support for them such as when they were promoted back to Spain’s second division in June. “I remember De Gea at 16 and he had one dream – to play for Elche,” a former teammate Borja Rubiato recalled.

De Gea’s family have now asked for tickets for a match which will be a 36,000 sell-out, with midfielder Saul Niguez, also from Elche. Both players supported Elche’s drive for season tickets at the start of last year when the green and whites had slipped to the third division.

“Wherever you are, the fans of Elche will not let you down,” De Gea said.

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Richard Jolly: Ireland risk going from bad under odd couple of O'Neill and Keane

Ian Hawkey: Portugal v Italy - a tale of two European football teams in transition

Analysis: Nations League defeat to Spain highlights England's shortcomings

Explainer: the Uefa Nations League, how it works and fixtures in UAE time

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While Elche are not a giant of Spanish football, the team from a city between Alicante and Murcia are no minnows either. Elche’s stadium is being used for a Spain game because itis one of the biggest in the country.

A provincial city of 220,000, famous for its palm trees and shoe making – if not a second-tier club – should not have a huge stadium, but the story goes back to Spain hosting the 1982 World Cup finals.

Elche’s president pushed for Elche to be a host city, citing their new 28,000-capacity stadium. Spanish government money helped build a second tier and increase it to 53,000. The total attendance of three group games staged there involving El Salvador, Hungary and Belgium was less than 40,000.

A figure just short of that will pack the stadium on Tuesday night and Enrique has said his team will attack from the start and press as high as possible.

“We need to dominate the important phases of play, that's our plan,” he said. “We will be aggressive in that sense. We have the power to evolve our model. I am convinced we will do it.

"We will see how effective we are, but the objective is to evolve and stop being predictable.”

Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said the game is not a must-win for his team, but he added: "A good result would keep our mood positive, and it’s much nicer when you win."

As it will be for De Gea in front of his friends and family.