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May 13, 2014

Jan Oblak: Mr Clean Sheet

Liverpool's 24-year long trophy drought in the English top flight continues, but another equally long streak could end on Wednesday when Benfica face Sevilla in the Europa League final. Srecko Katanec was the last Slovenian to win a European competition, as he starred in Sampdoria's midfield in the Cup Winners' Cup final against Anderlecht in 1990. Benfica's Jan Oblak wasn't even born then, but now he might add another glorious chapter to his country's history.

The stunning rise of the 21-year-old goalkeeper was rather unexpected for those who are not familiar with him. Ever since Benfica signed him from Olimpija Ljubljana back in 2010 for 1.7 million euros, he was supposed to be one for the future. Oblak himself was always very confident in his abilities. Two years ago, after a successful loan spell at Leiria, he stated: "I want to prove myself at the highest level. If Benfica give me a chance, I will show that." He was nevertheless sent on loan again last season, this time at Rio Ave, where his performances were mostly exceptional, especially on his debut, in the 1-0 win over Benfica's arch rivals Sporting Lisbon.

Good negotiating skills by his agent earned Oblak a contract extension until 2018 last summer, but Artur Moraes was again preferred in the No. 1 spot by Benfica coach Jorge Jesus at the beginning of the season. The experienced Brazilian is popular with the fans, but his form was erratic, and those in the stands became somewhat vocal about his frequent mistakes. With Artur between the posts, the team lost at Maritimo and conceded 12 goals in 13 games, while trailing Sporting and FC Porto in the table. The 2-2 home draw with newly promoted minnows Arouca was especially costly, so it was perhaps a blessing in disguise when the Brazilian was injured in the next game at Olhanense: Oblak stepped in and never looked back.

Remarkably, Benfica's defence became rock solid with him behind them. Indeed, the Slovenian proved to be extremely cool under pressure, just like his role model, Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas. In only his second league game in the starting lineup for the Eagles, Oblak faced Porto and produced very important saves to help the team to a priceless 2-0 win. That was his fifth clean sheet in a row in all competitions, and more were to come.

Looking back, the statistics are nothing short of astonishing. Oblak kept a clean sheet in 13 of his 15 league games, only conceding the total of three goals -- and one of them was a penalty. He started three games in the League Cup, and did not concede at all on the way to lifting the trophy last week. The Slovenian was superb in the semifinal against Porto, saving a penalty in the shootout following a goalless draw, and was highly praised again after the final versus Rio Ave. His two appearances in the Portuguese Cup also saw him keep two clean sheets.

Even more importantly, Oblak produced an inspired performance at Juventus in the return leg of Europa League semifinals, helping Benfica to a 0-0 draw against the Serie A champions, who only needed a single goal to take them to the final following the 2-1 defeat in Lisbon. Approaching Wednesday's final against Sevilla at the very same Juventus Stadium, Oblak is unbeaten for 771 minutes in a row. He is fearless, possesses great instincts and never loses his head. The bigger the challenge, the more focused and calm Oblak appears to be. Overall, he has kept a clean sheet in 19 out of 23 games for his club; Benfica are naturally unbeaten in all of them. Even the veteran fans in Lisbon can't remember anything like it.

Add another clean sheet for his country in a 1-0 win over Canada in November, when Oblak made an outrageous save from Dwayne De Rosario, and you can see he has had an absolutely stunning season. No goalkeeper in Europe can even come close to that. Michel Preud'homme, the Belgian custodian who remains a legend in Lisbon, is certainly impressed. "I enjoyed watching Oblak against Tottenham and Juventus -- he has the potential to become a great goalkeeper," he said in an interview to Mais Futebol last week.

In his native Slovenia, people are hardly surprised by Oblak's progress. The locals know only too well what a prodigy his is: multitalented, having played basketball till the age of 12, and inspired by his older sister, Teja, who represents the Slovenian national team nowadays. Indeed, Branko Oblak -- one of the best players in Slovenia history, who is not related to Jan -- gave him his debut at Olimpija when he was just 16.

As a teenager, he was almost an ever-present in his only season at his beloved club, and there were no shortage of offers. Empoli were rejected by the player himself, the interest of AC Milan never really materialized, while a trial at Fulham didn't result in a contract. The relegated Cottagers must be disappointed now to have missed out on such a talent.

But it was Benfica who snapped up the youngster four years ago, and now the Eagles could find it difficult to keep him at the club. Juventus, Napoli and Everton have been mentioned in the press as possible suitors, and there are numerous reports that Chelsea have made Oblak their main target to replace Petr Cech in the long run, in case Thibault Courtois is sold after three years on loan at Atletico Madrid.

On current form, it is possible that Samir Handanovic's place between the posts in the national team is also under threat. "Jan is somewhat unlucky that he has Handanovic, an experienced goalkeeper with Inter and one of the best in Serie A, ahead of him. Right now Samir is naturally the first option for Slovenia, but Oblak is getting closer and closer," Miran Zore, chief editor at Nogomania website tells ESPN FC. If Oblak does indeed displace Handanovic, then England will face him in the Slovenia goal during the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

The young keeper is not thinking about that now, of course. His only aim is to break the infamous Bela Guttmann curse: The great Hungarian coach claimed in 1962 that Benfica wouldn't win an international trophy without him for 100 years, and he has been right so far. The Eagles have lost seven European finals since the statement, including the dramatic Europa League defeat to Chelsea last season.

That was heart-breaking for Benfica, who missed out on all three trophies in the dying moments of the season last May, but they didn't have Oblak then. Now, with the seemingly invincible Slovenian in their ranks, they have already won the championship title and the League Cup, with the Portuguese Cup final against Rio Ave awaiting them. If they beat Sevilla on Wednesday, the season will end with four trophies, and no player will be more responsible for the triumph than the ice-cold Slovenian stopper.

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