19 June 2014

Guess we should cross Casillas off the wish-list...

What is happening to Iker Casillas? A year ago, I might have merely chalked up the situation to him being Mourinhoed—that special process through which an otherwise stellar player runs afoul of the Specious One's whims and is all but put in the stocks for public humiliation and ridicule. More recently, though, it's been hard to watch Casillas without worrying that his best days have already slipped away from him [edit: insert simile here to equate one's best days slipping away with a ball dribbling through keeper's fingers]. His last few performances have seen him deliver some howlingly bad moments, enough of them to make me worry that, as we seek a back-up who can challenge and/or mentor Szczęsny, we might do better than the 33-year old Spaniard. That hurts to say, because I genuinely do admire Casillas.

I'm referring to his last three matches of significance—against Chile, the Netherlands, and Atlético. In each match, he's been guilty of god-awful gaffes: gettting caught out of position, coughing off rebounds, mishandling balls, and otherwise making a meal out of things. Against Atlético, in an admittedly confusing scrum, Casillas came off his line before stopping about eight yards out, perhaps realizing that he might have to back up. However, he seemed to freeze as Godin's gentle, floating header drifted over him, and Casillas just couldn't get back to it in time. Goal. It's one of those agonizing, slow-motion goals that seem to take forever...if..the...goalie...could...juussttt

Against the Netherlands, a 1-5 drubbing that might have shocked the Dutch just as much as it did the Spanish, Casillas was similarly caught out of position on what was a brilliant goal from van Persie. Again, though, Casillas had come off his line only to get caught in no man's land. It's one thing to close down the shooter, trying to deny him the full width of the goal, but Casillas left himself too flat-footed to do much once van Persie headed the ball, and it went straight over Casillas and in. While it's difficult to blame Casillas for what may amount to one of the goals of the tournament, it wouldn't have been a goal at all if his positioning or reaction were just a shade better. Were this the only blip, we could call it an aberration. However, it ceoms among a rough stretch for the man, one that very nearly scuppered Real's quest for La Decima and has already torpedoed Spain's World Cup defense.

Still on the Netherlands match, Casillas was blameless for Robben's first and de Vrij's goal (although a case might be made for interference), but it's hard to get much worse than his efforts against van Persie when, casually receiving a back-pass, Casillas took a horrid first touch, stabbing the ball straight ahead and out of reach, and van Persie was able to control it and poke home, leaving Casillas to watch helplessly from the top of the eighteen. He cut a rather forlorn figure, standing so far away from his goal, watching on as the Dutch skunk celebrated his brace. I wish that were all. Instead, the enduring image of Casillas from this match might be his futile scramble as he scuttled and clawed on hands and knees to stay in front of Robben, who had outrun Ramos and then cut back to his left to send Casillas sprawling before slotting home to complete the spectacle.

It was more of the same against Chile, when Casillas was caught off his line, this time by Vargas, who coolly collected a pass and slotted home while Casillas watched on. Having overcommitted to his left, he was out of position to defend Vargas coming from the weak side. This was not a gaffe on the same proportion as those against the Netherlands or Atleti, but against that backdrop, it begins to look like another item on a litany. On its own, it's a tough play characterized by slap-dash defending that left the keeper isolated. In the broader context, it feels more like another mistake. Similarly, on Sanchez's free kick, Casillas made what looked to be a nifty save only to send a rebound straight back into the teeth of the charging Chilean as Aranguiz ran in behind Spain's wall, collected, and blasted it past Casillas. A difficult sequence, but the kind deflections if not outright saves we've come to expect Casillas to make. The free kick was struck well enough but not exceedingly so, and we would expect Casillas to catch it or at least deflect to the side or out of bounds.

Trying to decide whether some of these amount to gaffes versus being the kind of thing that just happens to a keeper from time to time is a tough decision to make. However, the frequency with which they've happened in the last month leads to difficult questions if not answers. Is he still the keeper he was two years ago, or has he passed his prime? His market value has plummeted from the £30m range two years ago to something closer to £10m, reflecting concerns about his age and perhaps his performance to boot. Part of this may simply reflect how much Casillas has been run into the ground over the last year, what with Real's assault on the Champions League and Spain's international schedule, which seems to have included just about every international event and friendly ever. In his defense, Casillas isn't the only one who's looked jaded if not exhausted. Can he recover? Would we still want him? This slump might be enough to convince Casillas that he's ready for a reduced role, but would he take to it at another club or would it feel too much like a disgrace? We could use a quality keeper, but one who is willing to mentor more than feature. Much as I might wish that Casillas could be the keeper, I worry that his stock has suffered too much. I'd almost rather see him ride off into the sunset rather than ride the bench, here or anywhere.

Or am I making too much of a few bad breaks?

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