Blog by: Parth
20th January, 2013 is a date that Iker Casillas will never forget, because that was the last time he started for Real Madrid in a league match. For the eighth month running, Casillas has had to watch from the bench as Diego Lopez goes from strength to strength, consolidating his position as Madrid’s first choice keeper.
It can never be easy for any player to suffer silently in the shadows while his direct competitor basks in the limelight, nor is it easy when you have fallen out with your manager, who just happens to be Jose Mourinho. For reasons well documented, Mourinho and Casillas never saw eye-to-eye after the turn of the year, and the rest is history.
Casillas – Saint Iker, the hearthrob of all Madridistas – was made to stand in the corner, like a naughty schoolboy, by the evil Portugese headmaster.
And then it all changed, as the dark clouds hovering over the Bernabeu gave way to clear blue sky and ushered in a summer of new – a new manager, a new era, new beginnings and for Casillas, a chance to return back to the fold as the no.1 keeper.
Carlo Ancelotti is known to be a manager who keeps his star players happy, massages their egos and tries his utmost to maintain harmony within the squad, without comprising on results.
So, it stands to reason that in Casillas’s mind, Carlo Ancelotti’s summer arrival would free him from the prison walls that Mourinho had erected around him.
However, only a month into the new season and the excitement has petered out, the bubble has burst and the fans are clamouring for their hero’s return, albeit not as vociferously as last season. Iker Casillas is yet to start a La Liga game, and has appeared in only one game so far – a 14-minute cameo, before going off injured, in a 6-1 drubbing of Galatasaray.
This was Casillas’s first start since the International Champions Cup in the summer and his first competitive fixture in 236 days. A damning indictment of his fall from grace.
Unlike Mourinho’s confrontational and defensive responses when quizzed about Casillas’s absence from the first team, Ancelotti has made it positively clear how he intends to use his two keepers – Lopez in La Liga, Casillas in the Champions League.
Goalkeeper rotation is a sticky subject for managers, as it is the only position in football that doesn’t require constant chopping and changing. In fact, as all successful managers and teams will attest, it is best to have stability and consistency in the goalkeeping department, with one clear first-choice and a back-up who expects to play second fiddle.
But how do you ask a decorated veteran such as Casillas to accept playing second fiddle? Ancelotti would stand a better chance of convincing Ronaldo to switch to left-back than have Casillas willingly accept his new, diminished stature as the clear second choice at Madrid.
By the same logic, how do you drop someone like Lopez, who has been performing brilliantly and is yet to do anything to make Ancelotti question his place in the side? On merit, Lopez is Ancelotti and Real’s number one.
Casillas’s injury comes at an inopportune time, and one that may lead to him getting even less playing time at Real Madrid than possible before. And, god forbid, it could affect his chances of being Spain’s number one keeper for the World Cup.
Vicente Del Bosque still entrusts Casillas with the Spanish no.1 jersey, but how long can he hold back the likes of Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina? These are keepers who play week-in, week-out and are match fit – two things that can’t be said of Casillas.
For long, both Valdes and Reina have played second fiddle to Casillas, having watched their international careers go up in smoke in the face of Casillas’s stunning form for club and country.
Now, though, the tables have turned. Casillas sits idly on the bench, while Reina was, last week, busy destroying Mario Balotelli’s 100% penalty record. Valdes, too, has picked up his game noticeably.
The hounds have sniffed blood, and are in full pursuit of the coveted Spanish no.1 jersey. How long Casillas can hold them off depends on how far Real Madrid progress in the Champions League.
Ironically, the final nail in the coffin for Casillas comes in the form of his Champions League appearance against Galatasaray. The agony of having to go off injured after 15 minutes is exacerbated by the fact that Casillas is now cup-tied, and cannot appear for another club in the Champions League this season.
A January loan move has been mooted as a possible scenario for Casillas to regain form and match fitness, but where could he go? The big clubs, the ones in the Champions League, can’t use him since he’s cup-tied with Real, and the relatively smaller ones either can’t afford him or would be too big a step down for Casillas.
This was supposed to be a dreamy summer of freedom and expression for Casillas, but the reality of the nightmarish winter has just set in. La Decima is now no longer a luxury; it’s now a necessity, and the bare minimum if Casillas is to convince Del Bosque to start him ahead of Reina and Valdes in the first match of the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
Turns out Jose Mourinho was right all along, and Carlo Ancelotti has simply confirmed what was thought to be an untested hypothesis last season – Iker Casillas’s decade-long stint at the highest level is coming to a grinding halt.