Saint Iker leads Spanish keeping to new heights

Reuters

Fri, 11 Nov 14:40:00 2011

Iker Casillas, the rock behind Spain's Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup triumphs, is set to equal the country's appearances record when the world champions play England in a friendly in London on Saturday.

The 30-year-old Real Madrid goalkeeper, known as 'Saint Iker', will win his 126th cap at Wembley to match Andoni Zubizarreta's record, 11 years after making his debut in a 1-1 draw in Sweden.

The achievement is all the more impressive considering the Spain and Real captain has had to fend off competition from possibly the strongest pool of goalkeeping talent in the world.

Casillas has the number one jersey ahead of Barcelona custodian Victor Valdes, a three-times Champions League winner, and Liverpool's Pepe Reina, one of whom will also feature at Wembley, coach Vicente del Bosque said on Friday.

The fact that Spaniards keep goal at two of England's leading clubs -- Manchester United bought Under-21 international David de Gea from Atletico Madrid in the close season -- illustrates the breadth of competency the Spanish have in the position and highlights a problem for the hosts.

England boss Fabio Capello will have Manchester City's promising Joe Hart, 24, between the posts, supported by Bursaspor's Scott Carson and David Stockdale from Championship (second division) Ipswich Town.

"There is a debate in Spain that perhaps Valdes, who is also a great goalkeeper, should be in the team instead of Casillas, but really there is no motive to change him," former Spain keeper Santi Canizares told Reuters.

EXEMPLARY FIGURE

"He is an exemplary figure, he is the captain and the player who has made most international appearances.

"He was lucky to arrive at the first team with Real and then with the national team at a very young age and has had the quality to retain his place, which was very difficult," added Canizares, who won 45 caps and helped Valencia to a La Liga and UEFA Cup double in 2004.

"He's one of those people who has won the respect of absolutely everyone."

Canizares, who was instantly recognisable for his bleached-blond hair, detailed the qualities of the man who replaced him as Spain's number one.

"He is very quick in every situation. He is very powerful and this gives him very quick reactions, and he is able to reach things practically no one else can get anywhere near.

"He is exceptional in one-on-ones. His problems are, perhaps, more with the high ball or with the ball at his feet, but it is certain he has improved a lot in these areas."

Outstanding Casillas moments include his two penalty saves in the Euro 2008 quarter-final shootout against Italy, a match widely considered to have been the making of the current Spain team, and his one-on-one save with his foot from Arjen Robben in the 2010 World Cup final against Netherlands.

"He is a wonder of a keeper and he has saved us many times," Spain and Barca playmaker Xavi said on Friday at a joint news conference with Casillas, who looked emotional when a video of his best moments was shown.

"When all seems lost there is Iker," Xavi added.

"He is one of those people who unites a dressing room, he makes you feel welcome in the group. I would highlight the person rather than the player."

SAFE HANDS

When asked about Spain's gifted crop of goalkeepers, Canizares suggested it was nothing unusual.

"We have always had good goalkeepers so it isn't a surprise," he said.

"But it is true that in the last 10 years we have seen the emergence of many great goalkeepers but also defenders, midfielders and strikers. Everything has improved in Spain over the last 10 years."

Spanish keepers playing at the highest levels such as Villarreal's Diego Lopez, Sevilla's Javi Varas and Valencia's Vicente Guaita, all have strong claims for national team call- ups, which contrasts strongly with the situation in England.

Of the Premier League's top clubs Manchester United relied on Dutchman Edwin van der Sar before opting for De Gea, Chelsea have Czech Republic's Petr Cech, Liverpool field Reina and Arsenal's main keeper is Poland's Wojciech Szczesny.

For a country that used to pride itself on world-class keepers of the calibre of Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton, England's recent inability to find a safe pair of hands has been perplexing.

"England still has good goalkeepers," Canizares added, "It's just in recent years maybe they haven't had much luck, making some mistakes which are perhaps difficult to explain."

Casillas's cool performances have not always caught the eye, but he did grab headlines around the world when a rare display of emotion saw him grab his girlfriend, a Spanish television reporter who was interviewing him, and gave her a passionate kiss live on air after the World Cup final in South Africa last year.

Del Bosque, who coached Casillas at Real Madrid, picked out his consistency as one of his most important traits when he named the squad for the England game.

"If we had to highlight something about Iker, it is the maximum concentration he has in absolutely every game," he said.

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