Saint Iker out to reclaim Madrid starting role

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesIker Casillas has welcomed the challenge of trying to reclaim his spot as Madrid's number one goalkeeper.

Iker Casillas was voted as FIFA's goalkeeper of the year at Monday's Ballon d'Or ceremony in Switzerland, yet five days later the shot-stopper will find himself battling to win back the number one jersey at Real Madrid.

Much has been said about Casillas losing his starting position to Antonio Adan. Under-fire Madrid manager Jose Mourinho made clear the decision was a technical one, while Spanish journalists have pointed to a long-standing falling out between the pair resulting in "Saint Iker" being replaced by his usual deputy for the match at Malaga before the winter break -- a match Los Blancos lost 3-2.

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With the furore that followed over the two week La Liga break, many believed Casillas -- who had not been dropped for a Madrid league match on technical terms in a decade before Mourinho's decision -- would be back between the sticks for Madrid's first match in 2013 at home against Real Sociedad, but the Spanish number one had to settle for a place on the bench. That was until Mourinho's hand was forced, with Adan sent off just six minutes in. Casillas to the rescue, almost.

Now, with Adan suspended for this week's Copa del Rey success against Celta Vigo and the trip to Osasuna on Saturday, Casillas has his chance to reclaim what Madridistas firmly believe is rightfully his -- the number one jersey. Forget any assumption you may have that the 31-year-old will automatically reclaim his starting role when Adan returns from suspension. According to the "in-the-know" Spanish press, Mourinho still plans to use Adan as his first choice goalkeeper when he is back available for selection. Saturday's trip to Pamplona may well be a big chance for Casillas. A chance to prove he should be back in Madrid's starting eleven.

Mourinho did not attend Monday's Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich. His excuse was that he was busy preparing for his side's big King's Cup match against Celta -- quite a valid excuse, although five of his star players -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Marcelo -- were not in Madrid, but collecting their FIFPro World XI accolades. It certainly didn't impact Ronaldo, who crashed in a hat trick as Los Blancos progressed to the last eight with a thumping 4-0 win.

Some believed he was not in attendance because he knew he wouldn't win the Coach of the Year award that was on offer -- indeed, Vicente del Bosque, the Spanish national coach, took the honour. It would have perhaps rubbed salt into the wounds to see Casillas, a man he has currently placed as his second choice goalkeeper, be crowned the best goalkeeper in the world for a fifth consecutive year.

Casillas, in my opinion, has not been at the very top levels of his game this season, for whatever reason. But that is not to say he has been poor -- far from it. A below par Casillas is still a goalkeeper who ranks among the best the game has to offer, such are his abilities when on top form. Votes from his peers to put him in the FIFPro World XI for the last five years prove that. As a goalkeeper, his domestic, European and international honours are currently unrivalled.

The rumours and reports of a falling out between Mourinho and Casillas may be true. As they say, there's no smoke without fire. But could there be another reason for the Madrid boss dropping a player who, at just 31 and still years away from retirement, is already considered a club legend?

There are plenty of reasons this season to counter the argument that one of Mourinho's strong points is his man management. But could dropping Casillas be a prime example of those skills? Madrid has all but given up on the league, and although they want to win the Copa del Rey, the holy grail is the Champions League. To win that would deem Mourinho's stay at the Bernabeu a success. He could leave the Spanish capital with his head held high. For that, he needs every player at the top of his game. Could dropping Casillas be the wake-up call the Spanish number one needs to help him regain his very top, top form?

If it is indeed a ploy by the 'Special One' to improve Casillas, it could be working. The Mostoles-born stopper said at a recent press event: "I have to train harder, grit my teeth and show Mourinho that he is wrong. A little setback like this isn't bad, these things make you stronger." He added: "I'm not upset that Mourinho said that I had got too comfortable. I have to train with more enthusiasm and regain his trust." What better time to drop Casillas and get him "hungry" than just before Madrid face a huge Champions League double-header with Manchester United?

Mourinho has given up a lot to drop Casillas, it was always going to be a huge call. Despite Madrid struggling at the start of the season and all but giving up the chase on Barcelona to retain their La Liga crown, the Portuguese still seemed to have the majority of the Bernabeu faithful on his side. Since dropping Casillas though, the tables have turned. The supporters made their feelings known against Sociedad when the announcer read out the team and manager names before kickoff. A polite applause for Adan -- he has, after all, done nothing wrong in terms of his selection -- a huge applause for Casillas, and a huge boo for Mourinho.

Those boos are probably set to continue for the Madrid boss, whether Casillas resumes number one duty for the remainder of the season or not. It will be somewhat of a welcome break, then, to travel away from the Spanish capital to Osasuna this weekend. Casillas would normally be happy with 90 minutes without having to do anything -- a sign his team are in full control. He probably wouldn't mind having to make the odd save or two on Saturday night, however, to remind his boss exactly what he's all about.

He may have no option with Madrid light at the back. Los Blancos will be without its starting centre-backs of Ramos and Pepe. Ramos will sit out the first of his five-game suspension following his sending-off against Celta. Pepe remains sidelined through injury, as does Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao. It is perhaps lucky, then, that Madrid face these problems against a side bottom of La Liga. The again, nothing has been easy for Mourinho and his men this season.

Follow Nicholas on Twitter @nicholasrigg

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