The Real Madrid coach saw his winter signing produce another polished performance against Galatasaray, meaning the captain will simply have to wait
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Jose Mourinho had come prepared. When COPE journalist Fernando Burgos dared to ask the Real Madrid coach about the goalkeeping situation on Tuesday, he came under an unexpected attack from the Portuguese.
Burgos asked Mourinho if he was concerned by the fact that Madrid had conceded goals in their last seven matches, something which had not previously occurred in the 50-year-old’s tenure, apparently alluding to a possible recall for the fit-again Iker Casillas in place of January signing Diego Lopez.
In his reply, Mourinho accused the journalist of ‘bias’ towards the club captain, with whom the reporter is said to be friendly, and produced an article written years earlier by the broadcaster in which he had stated that players should be picked on merit alone, not because of their reputation. He also remembered that Lopez had been on fine form since his arrival in January. Case closed. At least for now, anyway.
|MADRID’S STRIKERS BACK ON SONG
|Mourinho had been looking for a reaction from his frontmen and he got it on Wednesday. Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain have been below their best this term after playing an important part in last season’s Liga triumph, but both came good against Galatasaray with a goal apiece and their coach was happy after the match. “The goals will be good for their confidence,” he said, while also hinting that it is up to their team-mates to create more chances, adding: “It is easier for them when the team plays well.”
Either way, the return to form for the two men is timely. Higuain impressed for Argentina in the recent international break, but Benzema’s woes with France continued. Here, they both played their part and lifted the burden on Cristiano Ronaldo, who also scored but was not the only one of the forwards on form, as he has been so often in 2013.
Casillas is back in training again after recovering from a hand fracture sustained in the Copa del Rey against Valencia in January, but was not called up at the weekend for the trip to Zaragoza, nor for the Champions League quarter-final first leg at home to Galatasaray on Wednesday. Asked why Casillas’ return had not come at the weekend, Madrid assistant boss Aitor Karanka insisted that the goalkeeper still lacked the “competitive edge” needed to return to the first team. And Mourinho later added that the 31-year-old would be back in the squad for Saturday’s game at Levante, not for the Champions League clash on Wednesday.
And so, the questions have kept coming. Luckily for Mourinho, though, Diego Lopez has all the answers. The Galician goalkeeper turned in another dynamic display on Wednesday as he kept out everything that was aimed at him, making a superb save in each half to give the team a precious clean sheet ahead of next week’s trip to Istanbul. In the first half, the 31-year-old brilliantly denied Emmanuel Eboue with his feet just before the interval and he then got down low to his right in the second period to keep out a long-range effort from Selcuk Inan. Lopez also came off his line several times to deal with the aerial threat of Didier Drogba and again proved his worth in such fixtures.
Mourinho was content. “Diego Lopez is much more in form than Casillas,” he said afterwards. And it is impossible to argue otherwise. Bringing back the captain at this stage would only disrupt a winning team and upset the harmony. It would also send out the wrong message to the other players – that hierarchy comes before form.
Lopez, who came through the youth system at Madrid before making his name at Villarreal, has barely put a foot wrong since his return on a permanent deal from Sevilla in January. Aside from one error in the 2-1 win at Deportivo La Coruna in February, the new man has been in flawless form since he made his debut against Barcelona in the teams’ Copa del Rey semi-final first leg at the end of January.
His arrival also coincided with an uplift in Madrid’s performances as they twice beat Barcelona last month and then knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League in the last 16. “Diego Lopez was the best player in my team,” Mourinho mused after the success at Old Trafford, when Madrid came from behind to win 2-1 and held on thanks to a number of superb stops from their goalkeeper.
And Sir Alex Ferguson agreed. “Casillas wouldn’t have saved the shots that the boy Lopez did,” the Scot said. “Going out to Danny Welbeck, going down at Robin van Persie, coming out and whacking [Nemanja] Vidic in the head. Casillas isn’t that type of goalkeeper and that saved them, having that type of goalkeeper.”
And it is just that kind of goalkeeper that Mourinho admires. The Portuguese also has healthy respect for Casillas, even if the two have not always seen eye to eye, but given Diego Lopez’s fine form in recent weeks, dropping the Galician – in games of this magnitude – would be simply unthinkable at the moment. So Iker will have to wait.
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