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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

The unsung heroes: more to Real Madrid than just Cristiano Ronaldo

As Zinedine Zidane's side look to secure their place in the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League, Andy Mitten takes a look at the team's unsung heroes Keylor Navas and Casemiro

Keylor Navas has played the second most number of minutes this season for Real Madrid, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. Javier Soriano / AFP
Keylor Navas has played the second most number of minutes this season for Real Madrid, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. Javier Soriano / AFP

After last week’s sublime 3-0 victory in Turin, Real Madrid are expected to finish the job against Juventus in Wednesday’s second leg. No team has ever overturned a 3-0 home defeat in Europe and the reigning Spanish, European and world champions are favourites to reach an eighth consecutive semi-final and retain a trophy they have lifted in three of the past four years.

Ronaldo garnered applause from Juventus fans, global headlines and a million memes for his splendid bicycle kick goal, yet he tweeted praise for his team, complete with a group shot, after his bravura performance in Turin.

Ronaldo, who is set to make his 150th Champions League appearance, has long been Madrid’s undoubted star, but he is right to emphasise the contribution of the whole team. There are other stars in it, from the oft-criticised Gareth Bale, of whom Madrid legend Jorge Valdano said after Sunday’s Madrid derby: "nothing Gareth Bale does is worth €100 million". The cerebral Argentine has never been an admirer of British footballers, but he is not alone in being frustrated by the number of games Bale misses through injury.

Karim Benzema, Tony Kroos, Sergio Ramos and Isco are all Madrid stars, but what of the lesser heralded names? Ronaldo, a man who would rather be told he is the second best player in the world than be substituted, has played more league minutes than any other Madrid player this season, but Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas is second and Brazilian defensive midfielder Casemiro third.

Madrid are often linked with potential replacements, most frequently David de Gea, but Navas is a fine goalkeeper who made two outstanding saves in Sunday’s Madrid derby from Diego Costa and Koke. Navas, 31, isn’t as glamorous a name as De Gea, nor is he Spanish, but he is hugely popular with his Madrid teammates and fans.

Navas, who signed from Levante in 2014, the year he was on a three-man short-list for the best goalkeeper at the World Cup in Brazil, has superb reflexes and he also has the trust of his manager Zinedine Zidane, who kept him in the side even when he was going through rough patches.

Navas is in his fourth season at Madrid, winning everything and making key saves along the way. When De Gea was linked with another move to Madrid last year, club captain Sergio Ramos spoke to the club president Florentino Perez in support of the quiet, religious Navas.

Asked about his future after Sunday’s game, Navas said, with a smile: “I will go ... but to my house. I’m relaxed, I have two years more at Real Madrid and I want to complete them.”

Casemiro’s success is in part because Zidane believes in him. The Frenchman likes to line up with two defensive midfielders and pushed for the 26-year-old former Sao Paulo player, who spent the 2014/15 season on loan at Porto, converting him from the peripheral player he had been under former manager Rafa Benitez into a key member of his team.

Fans like him too. It helped that when he was considered a weak point against Barcelona’s brilliant attackers in a clasico, he broke up play from Barca’s midfield and front line leading to one newspaper christening him "The Tank".

Casemiro, who joined Madrid at 20 and spent a season in their B team, can play as the base in Madrid’s 4-3-3 or as a defensive two in a 4-4-2. His deep-lying role means that he scores rarely, but he got the winner at Parc de Princes against Paris Saint-Germain last month. He also scored Madrid’s opener against Manchester United in last August’s Uefa Super Cup, when he started as the central midfielder in a 4-3-1-2 formation. The Brazilian has started every Champions League game this season apart from the least important one, a match in Cyprus, which Madrid won 6-0.

Described as Madrid’s "life jacket" in one Spanish newspaper, Casemiro can also play as a central defender and injuries or suspensions to Nacho, Jesus Vallejo and Ramos means he could play there against Juventus at the Bernabeu. Such is the trust in Casemiro, and Navas behind him, nobody at Madrid would flinch at that.

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Read more from Andy Mitten:

Cristiano Ronaldo's work ethic developed at Manchester United continues to be rewarded with Real Madrid

Sergi Samper interview: Barcelona's unlucky midfielder prepared to suffer to fulfil boyhood dream

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