By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Not so long ago, it would have seemed unthinkable. With the countdown to the 2014 World Cup well underway, the greatest goalkeeper in Spain's history is confined to life on the Bernabeu bench and, as things stand, the champions may be better off leaving their captain at home next summer.
Iker Casillas returned from a long spell in the wilderness at club level last week, when he started his first Real Madrid match in 237 days. However, a promising start in the Champions League clash at Galatasaray was soon interrupted by injury as the 32-year-old was withdrawn with bruised ribs after just 13 minutes.
Diego Lopez replaced Iker in the Madrid goal and went on to make several spectacular stops. That, however, has become the order of the day for the Galician goalkeeper now. In fact, such is his brilliance that few can currently question his place in the Real line-up.
Nevertheless, Iker is an institution and although the World Cup-winning captain is second choice at the Santiago Bernabeu, he is still being backed by Spain boss Vicente del Bosque. But how much longer can Del Bosque keep faith in a goalkeeper who is not playing - especially when his rivals are all in the form of their lives?
At international level, Casillas currently competes with Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina, and for the moment at least, Del Bosque appears content with his trio of keepers. "We have three extraordinary goalkeepers and I am very happy with them," the Spain coach said earlier this month.
Valdes did not appear for Spain until the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, but is now second choice for his country and was superb in the crucial 1-0 qualifying win in Paris in late March.
The Barcelona keeper is in the form of his life and saved penalties in back-to-back games against Ajax and Rayo Vallecano prior to his side's 4-1 victory over Real Sociedad on Tuesday.
Valdes has told the Catalan club he has no plans to renew his contract and is set to leave Camp Nou in the summer, although players and fans remain hopeful he can be persuaded to stay.
As things stand, Valdes will be second in command behind Casillas as Del Bosque continues to keep faith in the man he left on the Bernabeu bench back in 2001-02 at Real Madrid, when Cesar Sanchez came in and shone until Iker returned triumphantly in the Champions League final.
Meanwhile, Pepe Reina remains in favour with Del Bosque and the Liverpool goalkeeper, on loan at Napoli and back playing under Rafa Benitez, has rediscovered his very best form. Already in fine fettle, the Catalan - tipped as a possible successor to Valdes at Barca next season - produced a stunning show in the win over AC Milan on Sunday, when he became the first goalkeeper to save a Mario Balotelli penalty (the Italy striker had netted all of his previous 22) in the victory at San Siro.
"When a goalkeeper makes the difference..." was how La Gazzetta dello Sport headlined his heroics, praising a performance which included seven superb saves from the 31-year-old. Such showings will only consolidate the Catalan's hopes of travelling to Brazil - and those are already high anyway.
That leaves Diego Lopez. Del Bosque spoke of respecting Casillas' competitors, yet he has resisted the opportunity to call upon the Galician goalkeeper, insisting he is happy with the three men he has picked between the sticks since 2010. But if Lopez is starting consistently ahead of Iker at Madrid and, like now, producing world-class displays on a weekly basis, surely he must be considered at some stage by the national coach. Many believe he should, including the mayor of Lopez's home town in Galicia, who wrote to Del Bosque earlier this year to complain of what he called "bias" and "unfair treatment" by the Spain boss towards his fellow Paradela native.
Del Bosque is in a difficult position: leave out Casillas and he will face a media storm next summer, but pick the Spain skipper and he could be left with a pale shadow of the great goalkeeper, short of sharpness, confidence and match practice (some of which was evident at the Confederations Cup in June). Call him up and he will be expected to start, yet should he be in the squad but not in the side, an intense debate is likely to ensue among media and fans. Something similar occurred with Raul and, in the end, then national coach Luis Aragones decided to dispense with the striker altogether. It worked well as, despite criticism, Spain shone by winning Euro 2008 - and they have never looked back since.
Del Bosque, though, is keen to stick with Casillas and leave any such changes (including the inevitable promotion of Manchester United's David de Gea, seen as the future in the position) until after the World Cup, when he will no longer be in charge.
However, should Iker find himself in the same situation at Madrid by the end of the season and Valdes, Reina and Diego Lopez remain in such fantastic form, the Spain boss must make perhaps the most difficult decision of his tenure so far - and leave Casillas behind.
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