For the best part of a decade Iker Casillas has been Spain’s undisputed first choice goalkeeper. For the vast majority of the 102 appearances he has made for the national team the Real Madrid ‘keeper has been a model of consistency, one of the world’s best shot stoppers and a highly reliable last line of defence.
However, the Madrid-born player’s aura of infallibility has been dented recently, a number of uncharacteristically high-profile errors having seen his reputation as the best goalkeeper of his generation slip in the years since Spain’s magnificent triumph at Euro 2008. In recent months there have been calls from some quarters of the Spanish media for the astonishingly uncapped Barcelona custodian Victor Valdes to replace Casillas in the national team ahead of the World Cup, an opinion that was almost unthinkable two years ago but one which is fast gaining credibility on the Iberian peninsula.
Valdes, a goalkeeper once derided for his perceived lack of ability as a part of one of Europe’s finest club sides, became Barca’s regular number one in the 2002/03 season and has gradually grown into the role to come to be regarded as one of the finest ‘keepers in world football. Playing at the Camp Nou behind one of the best groups of players the game has ever brought together may appear to be one of the easiest jobs in the football, but Valdes has shown his true range of abilities this season, making a plethora of excellent saves at key moments in important games. Indeed, Valdes has made it his trademark to make his best saves with the score still at 0-0, bailing his team out early in games before they – as has become customary in Catalonia – go about dismantling the opposition.
To look at a purely statistical breakdown of the two goalkeepers’ performances this season, both men have made 31 appearances in La Liga with Valdes having kept 17 clean sheets to Casillas’ 14. In terms of saves made in the league, the Real Madrid ‘keeper has made 86 in 31 games (2.77 per game) whilst his rival has made 75 after making the same number of starts (2.41 per game). Obviously, these are two goalkeepers who play behind a couple of the best defences in Europe, but the figures do suggest that Valdes is in marginally better form having kept three more clean sheets than Casillas despite having to make a very similar number of saves per game.
Despite the calls for Valdes to replace Casillas in the Spanish goal, it is highly unlikely that coach Vicente Del Bosque will consider bowing to this growing tide of public opinion. Speaking recently on this very issue, Del Bosque said, “Valdes is having an excellent season and I appreciate that, I fully understand the frustration that players feel when they are not called up. In the case of Valdes it comes down to the competition that there is for goalkeeping places. That is my only excuse.”
Del Bosque’s words will be of little comfort to Valdes, the Spanish coach seemingly set to continue with Casillas, his captain, between the posts. Indeed, with such an array of goalkeeping talent at his disposal (Pepe Reina, Andres Palop, Diego Lopez, Cesar Sanchez, David De Gea and Sergio Asenjo are all of international quality), Del Bosque is spoiled for choice. However, if recent squad selections are taken as a reliable measure of the coach’s thoughts, it looks as if Casillas, Reina and Lopez will be the three custodians on the plane to South Africa.
There is little doubt that Victor Valdes is a superb goalkeeper, but the Barcelona man has been unfortunate in that his career has coincided with that of one of this generation’s finest ‘keepers. His lack of an international career may be hugely frustrating, but Valdes is still just 28 years old – relatively young for a ‘keeper – and will surely gain his first cap in the near future. His excellent form cannot be ignored for much longer.