x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The show stoppers: the semi-finalists' glovemen

They are so often unsung heroes but the World Cup semi-finalists have four of the best keepers at the tournament, writes Euan Megson.

Uruguay's goalkeeper Fernando Muslera saves a penalty by Ghana's Dominic Adiyiah during the shoot-out in the World Cup quarter-final.
Uruguay's goalkeeper Fernando Muslera saves a penalty by Ghana's Dominic Adiyiah during the shoot-out in the World Cup quarter-final.

They are so often unsung heroes but the World Cup semi-finalists have four of the best keepers at the tournament

Since staking a World Cup claim in Uruguay's second-last qualifying game, the agile Fernando Muslera has swiftly established his credentials. And yet, no other goalkeeper has experienced tournament highs and lows like the Uruguayan. Three group-stage clean-sheets pushed his team to the Group A summit. But, with France, South Africa and Mexico held scoreless out, "Baby Face" Muslera gifted South Korea an equaliser in a tense last-16 encounter that Uruguay eventually won 2-1. Salvation, however, came against Ghana in the quarter-finals when Muslera, 24, saved twice in the penalty shoot-out. "He's in great form at the moment. He showed his character against Ghana," said his coach, Oscar Tabarez.

At 27, Maarten Stekelenburg is relatively unknown outside Holland. The Ajax Amsterdam goalkeeper has been part of the national team for six years, but suffered the misfortune of being behind Edwin van der Sar, the Manchester United stopper, in the Dutch pecking order. However, with 32 caps, Stekelenburg is one of only three World Cup goalkeepers (the others are Muslera and New Zealand's Mark Paston) who has not tasted defeat in South Africa. Stekelenburg's World Cup business has been conducted so efficiently that only Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o and Slovakia's Robert Vittek have beaten him so far, and both goals came from the penalty spot. After more than 450 World Cup minutes, Stekelenburg remains unbeaten in regular play. "It's my turn.

"I'm loving being here as my country's first choice," he said. "It's the highest level you can play at, and I'm enjoying it every time I step out there."

The old man of the semi-final keepers, Iker Casillas, captain of La Roja, is playing at his third World Cup. He has already made history by saving Oscar Cardozo's spot kick in Spain's 1-0 quarter-final victory over Paraguay. It made Casillas the first keeper to save a penalty in normal time at two different World Cups. David Villa, the World Cup's top marksman, is a big fan of the man between the Spanish sticks. "Without Casillas's spectacular saves, my goal against Paraguay would have counted for little. If you were to say that I deserve the Ballon D'Or, [Casillas] deserves it even more," Villa told Marca yesterday. With excellent reflexes and an almost unnatural ability to save in one-on-one situations, it is testament to the Real Madrid stopper's enduring qualities that Barcelona's Victor Valdes and Liverpool's Pepe Reina are permanent fixtures on the Spanish substitutes bench. If it seems as though Casillas has been around forever, consider the thought that, at 28, he is yet to reach his peak.

After the tragic suicide of Robert Enke, four goalkeepers were left vying for Germany's No 1 jersey. Initially, Rene Adler was handed the gloves, but the Bayer Leverkusen stopper suffered a broken rib at the end of the season and Schalke's Manuel Neuer, 24, was promoted for the World Cup. Having made his debut against the UAE last year, 10-cap Neuer has taken his elevation from third to first in his stride and has starred for Germany in South Africa.

In a rapid, youthful counter-attacking set-up, Neuer has conceded two goals in five matches, earning the praise of Oliver Kahn, Germany's former No 1 and a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich. "Even though he still lacks experience, he has shown at this tournament that he can become a great goalkeeper. "He pulled off a number of fantastic saves in the game against Ghana, which Germany had to win." emegson@thenational.ae

Vincent Enyeama Nigeria v Argentina The "best performance of my life" was how Enyeama described stopping Argentina's Lionel Messi scoring in Nigeria's 1-0 defeat in Group B. Several acrobatic stops included one fingertip save which prevented Messi finding the top corner. Noel Valladares Honduras v Chile The Honduran keeper somehow managed to keep the score at just 1-0 to Chile in their opening group match when Waldo Ponce, the centre-back, headed the ball from six yards out and Valladares flew across the goalline to make a point-blank save. Justo Villar Paraguay v Spain Looking distinctly out of position, the diminutive Paraguayan stopper had no right getting his glove anywhere near a bending, goal-bound curler by David Villa in the sides' tense quarter-final. He did, though, and saved a penalty later in the match, too.

Robert Green England v United States Fabio Capello's side were leading the US 1-0 in their opening match when Green fumbled Clint Dempsey's optimistic long-range effort into his own net. England never recovered and Green was dumped by his Italian manager for the remainder of the tournament. Richard Kingson Ghana v Australia Kingson should have done far better than simply parry a Marco Bresciano free-kick into the path of Brett Holman, who pounced to fire Australia into an 11th-minute lead in Rustenburg in their second match in Group D. Ghana eventually drew 1-1. Faouzi Chaouchi Algeria v Slovenia With only 10 minutes left in Algeria's Group C opener against Slovenia, the North African somehow allowed a tame effort by Robert Koren to slip past him for the game's only goal.