x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Real Madrid's Iker Casillas and Juventus' Gianluigi Buffon falling from goalkeeper grace

Once considered the world's top two goalkeepers, Real Madrid's Iker Casillas and Juventus' Gianluigi Buffon have struggled as of late, writes Ian Hawkey.

Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon was once considered one of the top goalkeepers in the world but he has struggled of late. Matthias Schrader / AP Photo
Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon was once considered one of the top goalkeepers in the world but he has struggled of late. Matthias Schrader / AP Photo

Real Madrid arrived in Istanbul on Monday confident of their progress to the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League. Entering their quarter-final second leg against Galatasaray with a 3-0 advantage, they are entitled to be.

The inclusion of no fewer than four goalkeepers in the party that flew to Turkey seemed excessively cautious. What it guaranteed, as the Madrid coach Jose Mourinho would have anticipated, was a further blast of attention focused on the status of Iker Casillas, his club captain.

Will Casillas even make the bench, it was being asked?

Spain's most-capped footballer returned to Madrid's first-team squad a week ago, having fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered in late January. But he did not automatically regain the No 1 spot, and is not expected to start tonight.

Diego Lopez, 31, signed from Sevilla in the winter transfer window, will probably do so, his performances over the past 13 matches arguing in favour of his continuity, certainly in the eyes of Mourinho. The coach has said: "It is hard to see Lopez losing his place."

Mourinho knows that to exclude Casillas, also 31, is to invite intense scrutiny. Not only is Casillas the long-serving captain, he is the most popular player at the club among supporters. He is also, by wide consensus, one of the finest two goalkeepers in the world over the past quarter-century.

When the International Federation of Football History and Statistics in 2011 celebrated their first 25 years of rigorously assessing consistency, success and sporting value by publishing a table of the best individuals in that period, they put Casillas second in the hierarchy. He stood a few points behind Gianluigi Buffon, who at 35 has been active among the elite a little longer.

Since then, Casillas had added two more significant titles to his catalogue of medals, a fifth Primera Liga title, and a second European Championship with Spain.

He lifted that trophy after a final against Buffon's Italy. Like Casillas, Buffon has won a World Cup in addition to his several domestic titles with Juventus.

Buffon and Casillas are mutual admirers and aware that in their profession they are touchstones, role models for the rest. Recently, Samir Handanovic, arguably the best goalkeeper this season in Serie A, was naming Buffon and Casillas as the best in the business.

But a week ago, as Casillas watched the first leg of Madrid-Galatasaray from the stands, Buffon found himself having to respond to a brutal, unceremonious declaration that his days at the summit of the goalkeeping hierarchy were in the past.

Buffon's flawed display in the 2-0 Juventus loss to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final, and particularly his sluggish reaction to the long-range shot from David Alaba, which gave Bayern an early lead, made him "look like a man in retirement", according to Franz Beckenbauer, the honorary Bayern president.

Buffon then missed Juve's match against Pescara at the weekend, though his coach, Antonio Conte, explained his captain had been suffering with flu.

If the keeper is well, Buffon should start the home leg against Bayern tomorrow, entrusted by Conte with marshalling the defence Juve will need if they are to stage an unlikely comeback, and galvanising colleagues.

Buffon's leadership qualities are well-respected. Leonardo Bonucci, the centre-half, says Beckenbauer's comments have provided extra motivation for the whole squad.

As a captain, Casillas is probably a quieter sort than Buffon, but he is still a powerful figure at Madrid. His relationship with Mourinho, a man sensitive to institutional power and influence wherever he has worked, has long been frosty, according to well-placed sources at Madrid.

The exclusion of Casillas is bound to be taken as an iconoclastic act as it was when Mourinho dropped him for one match in December. Casillas, or "Saint Iker" as he is nicknamed, may have aroused doubts at the outset of his career for not being a physical giant, but his alertness and composure have established him as the figurehead of a very fine generation of Spanish keepers.

He remains ahead of the excellent Victor Valdes, of Barcelona, of Liverpool's Pepe Reina and Manchester United's David De Gea in the national team's hierarchy.

Likewise, Buffon remains the choice for Italy, whose coach Cesare Prandelli, dismissed Beckenbauer's snub. But Prandelli will also be mindful that, though goalkeepers can thrive into their 40s, Buffon collects injuries more often than, say, Casillas. Prandelli also will know that Buffon's pre-eminence through his 126-cap career has been so complete that his successor will need to be assured he can live up to Buffon's standards, and must start being groomed.

That man may be Paris St Germain's Italian keeper, Salvatore Sirigu, who hopes to keep Barcelona at bay tomorrow in the tie, poised at 2-2.

Barca's Valdes, meanwhile, has lately impressed as Spain's first-choice understudy to Casillas. Sirigu and Valdes will be aware that the two grandees who have governed the summit of the goalkeeping hierarchy for so long are suffering unusual challenges to their supremacy, just as the Champions League reaches its climax.

So will Bayern's Manuel Neuer, the German who has aspirations to become known as the best keeper in the world over the next decade.


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