New year, same controversy at Real
Keylor Navas made all the right noises on Tuesday when he was unveiled as a new Real Madrid player, but the signing of the Costa Rica international goalkeeper is going to cause quite a ruckus behind the scenes at the Bernabeu.
Ever since Jose Mourinho's infamous decision to drop Iker Casillas after a decade of complete hegemony for the homegrown favourite, Real's goalkeepers have generated almost as much column space as their more bankable teammates. It was not an ideal situation for Casillas, whose misery was compounded when Alvaro Arbeloa broke his keeper's hand with an ill-judged kick against Valencia in the Copa del Rey a couple of weeks later. Diego Lopez, signed as cover for the convalescing Casillas, remained in goal in the league for over 50 matches until Casillas was recalled against Valladolid ahead of the Champions League final to gain some match fitness. Until that point, the "Saint of Mostoles" had been restricted to Copa and Champions League duty.
Debate has raged ever since about who is the better keeper, how much of Mourinho's -- and later Carlo Ancelotti's -- decision-making has been influenced by internal politics and, almost sacrilegiously, whether Casillas isn't just a bit washed up. The Spain keeper's recent performances for club and country, from his Champions League final blunder through a miserable World Cup -- where he conceded more goals in elimination from the group stage than he had in the three previous major international tournaments -- to a fumbling display against Manchester United last week in Michigan, have done little to dispel fears that his considerable powers have all but deserted him. It seems a little odd, then, that Ancelotti has already announced Casillas will start against Sevilla in Cardiff, Wales, in the European Super Cup on Aug. 12, especially when flavour of the month Navas has just rolled into the capital.
The Costa Rica keeper enjoyed an exceptional World Cup, but regular watchers of La Liga will have witnessed the 27-year-old being the main difference between comfortable midtable finishes and relegation at financial struggler Levante for the past of couple of seasons.
The Madrid-based sports dailies do love a poll, and Navas will have enjoyed reading them this week. Marca's simply asked if the Costa Rica stopper should be Real's No. 1, to which 82.8 percent of the more than 65,000 participants said yes. AS was more specific, asking who should start out of the three candidates, with 53 percent of 23,000 respondents backing Navas, 29 percent siding with Lopez and just 17 percent keeping the faith with St. Iker.
In February, Ancelotti noted of his goalkeepeing conundrum: "I don't know if it's fair, but I have two very good goalkeepers and this [system] motivates them both." That does not equate into happy families, though, as this oft-aired clip of Casillas and Lopez proves.
As things stand, Ancelotti has three very good goalkeepers, and none are going to be too happy to play second or third fiddle. It is more than clear that someone has to go, and all indications are that the Bernabeu hierarchy has decided that man is Lopez, despite Jesus Fernandez moving in the opposite direction to Navas.
If so, it would be a purely political decision and not one based on sporting considerations. That is not to say that Casillas has become a bad keeper overnight, but his performances have not been anywhere near his usual standard since his May recall. That could have as much to do with inactivity as with any permanent dulling of the reflexes, and perhaps reinstatement as No. 1 is all that Casillas requires to reach his former heights. But if that is the thinking at the Bernabeu, why sign Navas in the first place?
There are lies, damned lies and statistics, Mark Twain once wrote, but those concerning Casillas and Lopez certainly err on the side of the Spain and Real captain, who at the point of his recall for the Valladolid match had conceded every 201 minutes over the Copa and Champions League, in the process breaking his own record for consecutive goalless minutes of 592 in a January cup game against Espanyol. Lopez, playing in the league, conceded roughly a goal a game at 92.6 minutes.
But is the comparison fair? The Copa del Rey throws up some pretty middling opposition, and Europe is naturally a cagier environment than, for example, playing away at Rayo or any other side with nothing to lose by having a go. In the course of the league campaign, Lopez made more than double the number of saves Casillas did. Does that make him a better keeper or does it mean Real's defence was more switched on -- or less troubled by the opposition -- on Casillas' watch?
In other aspects, Lopez has an edge over Navas and Casillas. At over 6-foot-5, the former Villarreal keeper is more adept under high balls than Navas (6-0) and Casillas (6-1), a long-studied flaw in the Spain keeper's game. Did former Dutch coach Louis van Gaal bring Tim Krul on in the World Cup quarterfinals because the fans like him more or because he fills more of the goal than Jasper Cillessen?
Furthermore, Navas' distribution is no better than Casillas'; last season fewer than half of his attempts to find a teammate were successful. Lopez's accuracy rate was 71.6 percent.
Far from solving the curious situation between the sticks at Real Madrid, the signing of Navas will ensure that the debate rumbles on for another full season, unless someone leaves or suffers a serious injury. Whether that player should be Lopez seems to be a decision that will be based on matters outside the football sphere. The sports dailies are carrying the story that Lopez had a right pop at the Real directorship on the plane home from the U.S., claiming: "You know I'm better, but just do what you want anyway."
That is hardly the way to endear yourself to your employer, but Real have a problem in that Lopez signed a contract extension until 2017 not so long ago and will be entitled to compensation on his 4.5 million euro per year salary if the club wants to shift him on. So far no offers have been received for Lopez, and he is under no obligation to leave if he does not wish to.
That raises the prospect of Real having three viable first-team keepers next season, and Ancelotti has intimated that he will shelve his rotation policy for the coming campaign. Who will blink first?