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Aug 9, 2014

Goalkeeper situation still far from clear

Goalkeeper Keylor Navas has expressed his delight at signing for Real Madrid in an eight million pound deal.

The expected departure of Diego Lopez to AC Milan may have aided Carlo Ancelotti's goalkeeping dilemma but the situation surrounding the No. 1 jersey at Real Madrid is still far from ideal.

Rossoneri chief executive Adriano Galliani reportedly told supporters that a deal to take the Madrid stopper to the San Siro is "99 percent done." A medical is expected on Monday and Lopez could be unveiled by the Italian club before Los Blancos face Sevilla in Tuesday's UEFA Super Cup clash in Cardiff.

With that departure will come a sigh of relief at the Bernabeu as a tumultuous few months regarding the club's starting goalkeeper spot edge closer to a halt. Despite the arrivals of World Cup stars James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos this summer, most of the column inches in the Spanish sports papers have been dedicated to how Ancelotti will deal with having three goalkeepers who all want regular first-team action. Lopez and Iker Casillas were already battling for that honour but the arrival of Keylor Navas from Levante has only intensified matters.

- Graham Hunter: Casillas must prove his worth
- Rob Train: New year, same controversy
- Report: Navas ready for fresh challenge

Previous third-choice shot-stopper Jesus Fernandez has moved on to replace Navas at Levante and Lopez's imminent arrival at the San Siro leaves Ancelotti with a slightly more comfortable selection headache. The headache still remains, however; while the Italian's decision will boil down to goalkeeping qualities and those qualities alone, the stigma attached to a man known as "San Iker" among the Madrid support will continue to see an unwanted cloud hanging over the club.

Despite Lopez' exit, Casillas and Navas mean Real's No. 1 spot is more contentious than ever.
Despite Lopez' exit, Casillas and Navas mean Real's No. 1 spot is more contentious than ever.

Lopez was always going to be the easier man to shift this summer, despite him being the club's No. 1 for much of last season with a regular role in La Liga while Casillas took cup duty. The man from Móstoles is a Blancos legend thanks to lifting three European Cups and five La Liga trophies, as well as leading Spain to a World Cup and two European Championships. But his demotion to the bench, carried out by Jose Mourinho, was met with huge opposition and although that opposition has dwindled in the 18 months since, the matter is still raw.

Despite an error in last season's Champions League final and a string of mistakes in Spain's World Cup horror-show, many fans (and indeed some press) are still calling for Casillas to remain at the Bernabeu and as the club's first choice. The 33-year-old has already been confirmed as a starter in Tuesday's UEFA Super Cup by Ancelotti, prompting some to presume he will return to what many perceive to be his rightful place as Madrid's No. 1. Ancelotti says he will make that decision after that game.

In spending big on bringing Costa Rica's World Cup star Navas to the Spanish capital, however, Madrid have a goalkeeper who is ready to take that role and keep it for the entirety of the six-year contract he signed last week. The former Albacete man not only proved himself by helping Levante to the best defensive record outside La Liga's top-four last season, but he also showed he can do it on the biggest stage by helping his nation to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time. He kept clean sheets against Italy, England and Holland and was a contender for the Golden Glove. All this while Casillas crumbled with holders Spain.

Madrid and Ancelotti should have used this summer to make a clean break on the goalkeeping front. Navas provides an excellent addition to take things forward but the imposing figure of Casillas in the background could continue to be problematic. Last season Madrid's captain was humble in supporting Lopez and the switching of goalkeepers between league and cup worked well for the most part. Signing for a club such as Madrid brings huge pressure, however, and that pressure on Navas will only intensify with Casillas still at the club.

Ancelotti was wary last season that stigma attached to Casillas' legend could cause problems, at least in public through the fans and the press. "It was a little unpleasant for me because I know the Real Madrid fans well," he said of the competition. "It is important to know that I make the decisions so that the team wins. And, above all, it is important to understand that it is not Iker or Diego who is playing, it is the Real Madrid goalkeeper."

Navas is not coming to Real Madrid to serve as Casillas' understudy.
Navas is not coming to Real Madrid to serve as Casillas' understudy.

Wise words -- words that stand well when the No. 1 is performing well as Lopez did for the majority of last season. With Casillas watching on from the bench, however, the first mistake will be highlighted and the calls for "San Iker" will commence. It happened last season when Gabi's speculative long-range shot caught Lopez unaware to give Atletico Madrid a 2-1 lead in El Derbi. Lopez retained his first-team role but the pressure increased.

Casillas has struggled in recent months to replicate the kind of form that placed him amongst the best goalkeepers in the world. His time at the very top may seemingly be over, but the Madrid youth product still has a lot to offer. While a move away from the Bernabeu may benefit the club, it will also benefit the player. Given the signs of rust he showed in Lisbon and in Brazil, Casillas needs a long string of matches and he won't get that at Madrid. Ancelotti may now have two first-team goalkeepers given Lopez's departure but reports persist about Casillas being replaced, too. It would be the right move for all parties.

The Spanish international will start in Cardiff on Tuesday but Ancelotti has a big decision to make over who starts the two-legged Spanish Super Cup the following week and who will line up in goal for their Liga opener against Cordoba. Despite the embarrassment of riches at his disposal, the goalkeeping decision could be one of the Italian's biggest yet at the Bernabeu. A clean break in handing full responsibility to Navas, and even Casillas leave the club, could yet be the wisest move.

Nicholas Rigg

Nicholas Rigg writes about Real Madrid for ESPN FC and also blogs about La Liga for The Independent. Former sports journalist at the Wakefield Express and the editor of Vital Sheffield Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @nicholasrigg.

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