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Mar 11, 2014

Who'll keep Real warm next winter?

Good goalkeepers are hard to find. On so many occasions a reliable, even inspirational, stopper has exited a successful club and left behind a void that has been hard to fill, at best, or remained a vacant post between the posts at worst. Arsenal won a fair bit with David Seaman between the sticks, but not much, comparatively, since he was farmed out to Manchester City in 2003. Did Manchester United ever really replace the peerless Peter Schmeichel? Look what happened to Charlton after Dean Kiely left... goalkeepers are often remembered more for their mistakes than the countless games they kept their team in it -- Seaman's epic fumble of Nayim's hail-mary pop in the 1994-95 Cup Winners' Cup final a case in point.

- Courtois rejects 'false' Real Madrid links

A good goalkeeper can make the difference in a single match, or across the course of a league or knock-out competition. However, only one has ever been rewarded with football's highest individual honour; Lev Yashin in 1963. Gianluigi Buffon and Oliver Kahn have bothered the top three in the voting in recent years, but the gong has always gone to the glory boys at the top doing the sexy stuff. Since the Ballon d'Or was merged with the FIFA World Player Award in 2010, five players have dominated the reckoning, and none of them were Iker Casillas, despite Spain's 2010 World Cup win. A little unfair, considering all those 1-0 results in the knock-out stages and that save from Arjen Robben in the final.

The goalkeeper in general has a case for righteous disillusion. One balls-up and you're on the bench, no matter how many you've clawed away up to that point.

Casillas is another case in point. Demoted during the turbulent final season of Jose Mourinho's tenure, the Spain and Real Madrid captain has not regained his place as his club's undisputed starting keeper. He was diplomatic enough recently to say that Real's position in all competitions "has a lot to do with Diego Lopez," but there will come a time when he questions how much his club values him -- and what his value to the club continues to be.

Casillas would command a considerable transfer fee even at 32-years-old, which isn't that past-it for a goalkeeper. Buffon is still going strong at 36, and many have kept goal up to the big 4-0, even if that was often the scoreline that resulted in fielding them. Reflexes wane, motivation also. Casillas has consistently proven this season that he lacks neither, even if only in the cup competitions under the current status quo.

This is where Real Madrid has a delicate balancing act to perform as 2013-14 winds down to its denouement. Casillas is coveted by the Premier League, in the same way as his fellow old lag Victor Valdes. Lopez is attracting interest from Italy, notably AC Milan, but there will be other takers if he comes on the market. Why would either not fancy a swansong in a different league, a la Valdes? If Casillas lifts the Decima in Lisbon, and or the World Cup in Brazil, what will he be worth then? A first Spanish league title might be enough for Lopez to consider his work in Madrid done. A fat paycheck offer from abroad turns most heads.

What would Real do then? There are some decent prospects in the Cantera -- Diego Llorente and Jorge Casado, vice captain and captain respectively, should keep the first team defence on their toes in years to come, while goalscoring number 10 Borja Garcia, Peruvian international Christian Benavente, and midfielder Jose Rodriguez, who has formed a promising partnership with the exciting Raul de Tomas, will all be knocking on the door soon enough -- but third-choice keeper at the moment, Jesus Fernandez, is not ready to step up to the first team: two appearances for Real and none for Spain at any level are stats that speak for themselves.

Antonio Adan's brief experience as understudy to Casillas ended in disaster and led to him being jettisoned. Castillas' first-choice keeper Fernando Pacheco has represented the under-21s at international level seven times, but between him and Ruben Yanez Castilla have shipped 39 goals so far this season and the side is at the wrong end of the table to inspire Carlo Ancelotti to look in that direction for anyone, let alone a replacement for the likes of Casillas and Lopez.

With no guarantee of a first-team berth in all competitions at Real, Lopez and Casillas well may decide to try their luck elsewhere in the summer. Cue reports in the Spanish media this week that Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is firmly in the Bernabeu's sights. These have of course been denied as "totally false" by Courtois, but it isn't such an outlandish idea. The Belgium number one is Chelsea's biggest bargaining chip after Eden Hazard, and it's clear Courtois' international teammate isn't going anywhere.

Mourinho, meanwhile, wants to rebuild his squad, with a striker first on his shopping list after recent comments about the ones he possesses. Even if he doesn't trouble Real's front line in the summer, there are plenty of other players at the Bernabeu that the Portuguese admires, not least Angel di Maria. Courtois is valued at around €30 million euros, and that's not a bad place to start a negotiation from.

But what if Courtois lifts the European Cup this season with Atletico, or even the World Cup with Belgium? No European side has ever won the World Cup on South American soil, but the Red Devils are not exactly dark horses; bookies have Belgium at fifth favourites behind the hosts, Argentina, Germany and Spain to lift the trophy. And one of Spain and Brazil won't be in the quarterfinals in all likelihood.

How much will Courtois be worth then? €30 million euros might be a bargain right now. Buffon went for €50 million euros and remains the most expensive keeper in the world. How much might Real have commanded for Casillas in the summer of 2010? Courtois remains the least-breached stopper in La Liga this season and at 21-years-old is a sound investment for at least the next decade.

If Real Madrid really are pulling the strings behind the scenes on this deal, it will be up there with signing Cristiano Ronaldo in the long-term. The problem for Florentino Lopez, Ancelotti et al is that it might prove to be almost as expensive in the current market if they don't sew it up before the summer. There's a space between the sticks at Real for an undisputed No.1. World football will be watching it closely in the coming months.