It’s that time of year when transfer rumours and speculation begin to mount up with Manchester United already being heavily linked with Borussia Dortmund pair Mats Hummels and İlkay Gündoğan as well as PSV forward Memphis Depay.
However, out of all the potential signings executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward can lure to Old Trafford this summer, the most important player to be pictured sitting next to Louis van Gaal signing a contract is David de Gea.
United’s number-one has been the stand-out player for the Red Devils this season and will most likely swoop the majority of the accolades at the club’s end of season awards dinner next month.
However, rumours about the Spanish keeper being linked with a summer move to Real Madrid persist and is a worrying prospect with de Gea yet to agree to a new deal to extend his current contract at United beyond next season.
More concerning for United fans perhaps, the attraction of signing for the La Liga giants goes beyond the football club. The move would present de Gea with the opportunity to return to the city he left for United in 2011, when he joined from Atletico Madrid for £17.8m.
Playing in La Liga would also give de Gea the opportunity to consolidate his position as Spain’s number-one.
Should Iker Casillas leave the Bernabéu this summer, it would be difficult to see past de Gea replacing him and United would be unable to reject the move with the risk of losing the Spanish keeper on a free next summer.
Speaking at his press-conference before United’s 3-0 defeat to Everton at the weekend, Louis van Gaal told reporters the club had offered de Gea a new contract but admitted it was out of his hands whether he would sign.
“I am not the boss. I want him to stay. The player is the boss – he can say yes or no. You will have to ask David de Gea, not me. He has to sign. We have offered him a lot of money.”
Given his performances this season, it is not surprising United have offered de Gea a lucrative new deal believed to be in the region of £150,000 a week.
It seems likely now that United will finish in the top-four and that is largely down to the contribution of their goalkeeper.
The 2-1 victory over Everton at home and United’s win at the Emirates in November are prime examples of games in which de Gea produced a series of world-class saves to secure the three points for his side.
In the 3-0 home win over Liverpool in December, de Gea was awarded man-of-the-match after another outstanding display to help United defeat their rivals. How often do you see United win 3-0 at Old Trafford and the keeper being their best player?
De Gea’s outstanding season saw him nominated for both player of the year and young player of the year at the PFA awards last month, and was named in the PFA’s team of the year.
The keeper has certainly developed into one of the best shot-stoppers in the world since joining United in 2011 and it is hard to believe now that he endured a difficult start to life at Old Trafford with a series of goalkeeping mistakes.
Should de Gea leave, United have three times Champions League winner Victor Valdes waiting in the wings or could opt to sign Petr Cech, who is expected to leave Chelsea this summer for the promise of first team football.
Keeping de Gea is the number one priority however, and should he sign a new contract in the next couple of months it would be the best bit of business United do this summer.
Upon hearing that Salford assistant coach Ian Watson is set to come out of retirement and line-up for the Red Devils against Hull FC on Friday you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were being stitched up.
However, the unprecedented injury crisis which has struck the Salford squad has forced the club to put in a request to the RFL for the 38 year-old to play in his first Super League game since 2002.
Salford have potentially 12 players out injured for Friday’s clash as well as four absentees through suspension. Emergency loan signings and players from the academy are being asked to step up to the plate and provide cover for the depleted Red Devils side.
A request from the club to Hull FC to postpone Friday’s match was declined by the Humberside club and the game will go ahead as planned.
Hull sit 11th in the table and will see the fixture as the perfect opportunity to pick up two points in their fight for Super League survival. However, the black and whites must not let complacency set in, as Salford were only beaten by two points on Sunday against Castleford in a game in which they had 12 players missing as well as Adrian Morley, Liam Hood and Wayne Godwin all going off injured throughout the match.
Salford’s injury crisis has come at the worst possible time with the club having held down 4th place in the league for two weeks and looking to be heading in the right direction to fulfil the ambitions of owner Marwan Koukash.
The Red Devils must remain positive and whatever side Iestyn Harris is able to name must go out and show Hull that they will not be easily beaten.
Friday’s game provides the perfect opportunity for some of the youngsters coming through the academy to show their ability and put forward their case to be given more opportunities in the first team in the future.
Harris will be hoping his depleted team make it through Friday’s game unscathed and that the result will not be too damning.
The 2015 Super League regular season reaches its half-way point this weekend and no coach in the competition will be more satisfied at this stage of the campaign than Leeds head coach Brian McDermott.
With all sides having played each other once, Leeds sit six points clear at the top of the table having lost just one of their opening 11 fixtures. The Rhinos have won their last six matches and have scored 113 points more than the second-highest scorers in the league, Warrington.
Leeds have underperformed during the regular rounds in recent seasons and have relied on good end of season form and play-off success to galvanise something from their league campaign.
This season however, the Rhinos look the real deal and Friday’s 41-16 demolition of champions St Helens demonstrated that Leeds are the team to beat.
The Challenge Cup holders outclassed Saints at Langtree Park in what was billed as their toughest challenge of the season so far.
But what was most impressive, and what will have pleased head coach Brian McDermott, was despite all of the experienced players Leeds had out on the field, it was the youngsters who ran the show and rightfully made the headlines.
19 year-old winger Ash Handley has been given his opportunity in the first team in recent weeks due to injuries to Tom Briscoe and Ryan Hall. The youngster has repaid the faith put in him by his coach and after his hat-trick against St Helens has now scored six tries in his six appearances.
His interception try to open the scoring on Friday was something you would expect to see from an experienced figure. Handley knew that Leeds were outnumbered out-wide and Saints were likely to score. The youngster took the risk to intercept Josh Jones’ pass and ran 90 metres to score his first of three tries on the night.
Leeds have been a dominant force in the Super League era having won six titles between 2004 and 2012. The core of that side still remains at Headingley, with the likes of Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire still leading the team around the pitch each week.
But like all successful sporting sides, there’s a question over how the team reacts once that core of players leave. The departures of Peacock and Sinfield at the end of this season have already been announced. Peacock will retire and take on the role of Football Manager at Hull KR and Sinfield, who has been Leeds captain since 2002, will switch codes and play for Yorkshire Carnegie.
Both Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow are 32, Kylie Leuluia 37 and Jamie Jones-Buchanan 33. While these players have been influential in the Rhinos’ success on the pitch, they are a part of an aging squad and there are fears amongst Leeds fans about what will happen when they no longer grace the Headingley turf.
Two other clubs have faced this dilemma in recent years. St Helens suffered when the likes of Sean Long, Keiron Cunningham and Paul Sculthorpe retired and finally came through that period of transition last season by winning the Grand Final.
Warrington are currently going through the transition having lost Lee Briers, Brett Hodgson and Michael Monaghan in recent seasons. Head coach Tony Smith is still struggling to replace their influence and the Wolves have taken a step backwards since their departures.
Whilst Leeds could suffer a similar fate, there was more than enough evidence on display on Friday that the products from their academy will be capable of bridging the gap.
Young stand-off Liam Sutcliffe lead his side like an experienced-pro, as the 20 year-old kept Sinfield out of the starting line-up for the first time since 2003.
His beautifully weighted cross-field kick to set up Handley’s third try was something you would expect to see from Sinfield. The intelligence to know that the St Helens defence was stranded in the centre of the field and then the vision and execution of the kick into the corner was superb.
Sutcliffe’s goal-kicking is another attribute he possesses and can help quell fears over Sinfield’s departure at the end of the season.
Kallum Watkins and Zak Hardaker are other examples of the youth players making the most of their opportunity in the first team and have now become regulars.
Watkins, 24, is considered one of the best centres in the competition and has scored 20+ tries in the last three seasons.
Despite certain off-field problems, Hardaker took over the full-back position from Brent Webb in 2013 and was named in the Super League Dream Team last season.
Other under 19s players such as Ashton Golding, Robbie Ward and Andy Yates have also been given their first-team chances this season and will look to capitalise further before the end of the campaign.
Whilst the thought of Peacock and Sinfield no longer lining up for Leeds each week will send shivers down the spines of some fans, the future looks bright for the Rhinos.