By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The last time Iker Casillas missed a Clasico, sat beside him on the bench was Real Madrid assistant Aitor Karanka – then a defender in Vicente Del Bosque’s successful side. It was the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona at Camp Nou in May 2002 and Casillas had lost his place in the starting XI to Cesar Sanchez, but claimed it back again in the final victory over Bayer Leverkusen as his team-mate was inopportunely injured. And he has never faced serious competition since. Not, that is, until now.
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho and Casillas have endured a rocky relationship since the Portuguese arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2010 and that eventually culminated in the boss benching his goalkeeper before the winter break, believing the club captain to be comfortable and complacent in his unchallenged role. With that in mind, Mourinho has long looked to bring in another goalkeeper to challenge Casillas, but knows the Madrid hierarchy would frown upon such a signing. But not now. The club’s hand was forced as quickly as Iker’s finger fractured in last week’s 1-1 draw at Valencia. Facing up to 12 weeks on the sidelines, the club moved quickly to bring in a man for the big occasions against Barcelona and Manchester United in the coming weeks: Diego Lopez.
The Galician goalkeeper is in line for a dramatic debut on Wednesday ahead of Antonio Adan as he begins his second spell in the capital, who snapped him up from local side Lugo as an 18-year-old. By then, Casillas – just a few months older than Lopez – was already a first-team regular at the Bernabeu. For two seasons, between 2005 and 2007, they trained together after Diego was eventually moved up from the B side and in 2006, Fabio Capello seriously considered promoting the understudy and leaving out Casillas on the advice of his goalkeeping coach Franco Tancredi, who was impressed with the bigger man’s shot-stopping abilities, but especially his formidable frame.
At 1.96m, Lopez towers 11 centimetres above his team-mate and is the same height as another Mourinho favourite, Petr Cech. The Portuguese, like Capello before him, is a known admirer of the Galician, a member of Spain’s Euro 2008 squad and pivotal part of Villarreal’s success prior to their relegation last term, and has grown frustrated at his side’s inability to defend set-pieces over the last two seasons. With a more commanding figure in goal, that problem could be eradicated and, following his quick move from Sevilla where he was surprisingly behind veteran Andres Palop, 31-year-old Lopez could be thrust into the limelight to prove his worth in the world’s most famous fixture on Wednesday.
|IKER CASILLAS v DIEGO LOPEZ
|May 20, 1981||DATE OF BIRTH
||November 3, 1981|
|December 12, 1999||SENIOR DEBUT
||April 30, 2006|
|654||REAL MADRID APPEARANCES||2 (both in 2006)|
|654||TOTAL CLUB APPEARANCES
|143||INTERNATIONAL CAPS||1 (2009)|
He will not be fazed. Lopez regularly produced his finest performances in the biggest games for Villarreal and became the first goalkeeper to save a penalty from Lionel Messi in an official game, stopping the Argentine’s spot-kick in a cup clash at Camp Nou in January 2008 – almost five years to the day prior to Wednesday’s semi-final first leg. He also pulled off a stunning save as Villarreal held Barca at El Madrigal in a goalless game in La Liga last term, although there was little he could do to prevent the Catalans from running riot in the first fixture of the 2011-12 Primera Division campaign, which Pep Guardiola’s side won 5-0.
At Madrid, he was unable to displace Casillas in 2006 and eventually moved on a year later, improving his game by studying Netherlands great Edwin van der Sar and working on his awareness of space, in particular, which can prove a problem for taller goalkeepers. And now he is back, five-and-a-half years after departing and a much better goalkeeper than when he left.
“I haven’t come here to replace Casillas,” Lopez told the press on Monday. But he later added: “I am here to try and play all the time.” Mourinho may see the new man as the better option going forward, but that is unlikely to affect the club’s long-term plans as the Portuguese is set to depart in the summer anyway, following a series of problems with his players, Casillas among them. The Spain goalkeeper, as a living legend at Madrid, will remain the club’s number-one choice between the sticks, but with Lopez signed up until 2017, the club captain has some serious competition ahead of him for the next four years. ‘San Iker’ is no longer untouchable.
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