ANALYSIS: Madrid's captain returns to league action ahead of the Champions League final. But should he start instead of Diego Lopez anyway?
Iker Casillas is back. The Real Madrid captain hasn’t featured for his club in La Liga since January of last year, but the 32-year-old returns against Valladolid on Wednesday – and the statistics show he should probably stay there.
Casillas will play in La Liga for the first time in 52 games as he looks to gain match fitness ahead of the Champions League final later this month. Benched by Jose Mourinho back in late 2012, Iker then got injured the following month and, after a pre-season in which Diego Lopez looked sharper, incoming coach Carlo Ancelotti opted to start the league campaign with the Galician goalkeeper instead.
That was not an altogether popular decision with the Madrid media, yet Lopez himself has been brilliant since moving back to the club where he emerged alongside Iker in the youth system. And in order to cool the growing disquiet from fans and members of the press pack, Ancelotti decided that Casillas would start in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League – a decision which ultimately appeased both men and has actually worked well.
Then, in his first Champions League match, Casillas got injured in a freak collision with Sergio Ramos. It was yet more misfortune for the Spain goalkeeper, but bad luck and Casillas don’t seem to stay together for too long and the Spain skipper has played a pivotal part in Real’s run to the Copa del Rey title and the final of the continental competition.
Indeed, this return to prominence is reminiscent of 2002, when he was out of the team but came back to star in the Champions League final victory over Bayer Leverkusen after the in-form Cesar Sanchez was injured.
This time, Casillas could end up winning the two tournaments in which he has played: the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. Iker’s interventions in the cup final helped Madrid beat Barcelona and he conceded only once in the entire competition – Marc Bartra’s brilliant header at Mestalla.
In the Champions League, meanwhile, Casillas has conceded eight of the nine goals scored against Madrid (the other, a consolation for Galatasaray in Real’s 6-1 win in Istanbul, came after he had departed through injury).
In 21 appearances, he has let in only nine goals so far this term, while Diego Lopez has conceded 36 times in 35 appearances, all but one of those in La Liga.
It may be that Madrid have defended better in Europe and in the Copa than in the league, but the Opta stats for the two top tournaments (Liga and Champions League) show Casillas has made a higher percentage of saves and concedes a lot less than his team-mate.
In La Liga, Lopez lets in a goal every 92.6 minutes. In the Champions League, Casillas concedes every 125.6 minutes. Include the Copa del Rey and he has let a goal in every 201.6 minutes.
Two of the nine Copa games did come against lower-league opposition (Olimpic Xativa), however, while it is impossible to know how well Casillas would have done in La Liga or Diego Lopez in the cup competitions. Yet the stats seem to support Iker.
I don't know if the situation is fair or not, but I have two very good goalkeepers and this motivates them both"
- Carlo Ancelotti in February
Ancelotti, though, will have the final say - and at the moment the Italian seems happy to rotate his two goalkeepers.
“I have spoken to them both and they agree," he said this week. "I have made the decision [to start Iker on Wednesday] because Casillas needs to play this month. It wouldn’t be fair to leave him out of the side for a month to prepare for the game.”
Back in February, the Italian said: “I don’t know if it’s a fair situation. But I have two very good goalkeepers and this motivates them both.”
Mourinho, meanwhile, had claimed Casillas’ complacency was the reason for him being dropped in the first place, so perhaps Iker’s impressive form this term is down to the fact that he is not playing all the time.
In any case, most teams would be happy to have one top goalkeeper, let alone these two. So from the point of view of Ancelotti and also Madrid, it's a nice problem to have.