Keylor Navas quietly emerging as Real Madrid's hero
Football today loves nothing more than a good stat. Real Madrid's 2-0 victory over AS Roma at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night, which secured a sixth successive Champions League quarterfinal for the club, produced quite a few. Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 40th goal of the season, and his 13th of this European campaign. Zinedine Zidane's side broke a run of almost 30 years of hurt against Italian teams in continental competition. The home side managed 37 attempts on goal, the visitors nine. Of those, 13 combined were on target. By contrast, West Brom and Manchester United would, based on last weekend's match at the Hawthorns, have to play three additional games to reach the same figure. West Brom had two shots on target and won 1-0.
Roma had four shots on goal in the Bernabeu, yet drew a blank. They were not the first side to do so in this year's Champions League when facing Madrid. While Ronaldo occupied the headlines on Wednesday morning for chalking up a goal and an assist in an impressive performance playing in a central role, goalkeeper Keylor Navas quietly moved into second place on the list of longest unbeaten runs in Champions League history, overtaking Edwin van der Sar's mark of 657 minutes with Ajax in 1995-96. If Navas manages to last until half-time of the quarterfinal second leg against whoever Real are drawn against, he will have beaten the all-time record in the current format of Europe's elite tournament, set by Jens Lehmann at Arsenal between February 2005 and September 2006.
If Navas does achieve that feat, Real will also be a step closer to the last four. Ronaldo may be the front page poster boy for Real's Champions League campaign, but the Portuguese knows the value of a world-class No. 1: "He's a hell of a keeper," Ronaldo said after Navas made three important stops to keep Roma at bay on Tuesday.
It is fair to point out that Navas' run hasn't been against the toughest sides Europe can throw up. His debut in the competition came last season against FC Basel, when Madrid had qualification safely in the bag. His next game was against Ludogorets. This season he kept goal four times in the group stage, with only PSG representing the continental elite. However, it is also fair to point out that Navas kept Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Angel di Maria from scoring for 180 minutes, which is impressive by anybody's standards.
When Kiko Casilla came in for the Costa Rica international, Shakhtar put three past the back-up keeper in 10 second half minutes.
Navas remains the only keeper with a perfect record in this season's Champions League, closely followed by PSG's Kevin Trapp and Atletico's Jan Oblak, who have five clean sheets each. Both have played one game more than Navas but have conceded two and three times, respectively.
Real's defence is often cited as the side's weak link but Navas has faced the fewest number of shots in the tournament so far: 14. Oblak, playing behind the famously stingy Atletico back line, has had two more to deal with. Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer has conceded five and Barcelona's Marc-Andre ter Stegen, four.
Real have had their defensive lapses in La Liga but as of yet they are not being translated onto the European stage. In the Spanish top flight Navas has faced more shots on goal than Oblak, Claudio Bravo (Barcelona), Alphonse Areola (Villarreal), Gorka Iraizoz (Athletic) and Carlos Kameni (Malaga). The Real keeper has nine Primera clean sheets to his name this season. Five of those came in the opening five games.
Real Madrid are simply a different beast when they have the scent of European glory in their nostrils. And although the firepower available at the other end is awesome, it counts for little without a solid foundation. There will be games when the goals don't come, but as long as they're not going in at the other end, hope remains. Navas provides that hope, and also a sense of uncertainty in opposition players. The number of times Navas has prevailed in one-on-ones in Europe this season helps to sow a little seed of doubt in the mind of anyone facing him, much like Peter Schmeichel used to do for Manchester United.
And to think that only a misplaced fax prevented Navas from being bundled out of the Bernabeu back door in the final hour on deadline day last summer in exchange for David De Gea -- another fine piece of statesmanship on Real president Florentino Perez's part. De Gea remained at Manchester United, leaked seven goals in the group stage and is now a Europa League keeper.
Navas remained at the Bernabeu, broke the Champions League unbeaten record for a debut keeper in the return fixture against PSG and picked up a huge pay rise from a sheepish-looking Perez shortly afterwards. He could have been forgiven for crowing a tad, but that is not Navas' style. Instead he pocketed the cheque and got on with the job, one which has led him to the cusp of another European record and Real into the quarterfinals.
"This is something for the group, everyone is working hard in defence, from Cristiano up front," Navas said after the PSG game. "If this was tennis it would be different, but football is about the team."
Quite. There's no "I" in team, as the old saying goes. There are a few in "Costa Rica keeper quietly saves Real Madrid's season," though. And it will be only fitting if something to that effect forms a headline should Real lift the Champions League trophy in the San Siro.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.