If Real Madrid manage to achieve the cherished La Decima, we all know the heroes who will lauded and celebrated through the ages. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas (back from injury in time to raise the trophy, naturally) and Xabi Alonso are all world class players and leaders who would deserve to be commemorated as the key players in such an historic achievement. But there’s someone else, whose name is unlikely to be etched indelibly in history, someone whose shirts wouldn’t be on sale at DiscountFootballKits, but who has already played a crucial part in getting to the last eight.
I wonder if it’s confusing for the president who will always be associated with Galacticos to contemplate that one of the most crucial signings in his stints in charge at the Bernabeu could turn out to be an emergency back-up goalkeeper!
Diego Lopez’s work at Old Trafford was superb. He wasn’t obtrusive in what he did, but the saves he made when the match was scoreless were utterly invaluable. If United had taken a first half lead they would have had more time before Nani’s sending off (which drew an initial howl of outrage from the British media, which has been followed by a rather cooler reappraisal that you could see why the referee made his decision) to grab a second before the balance of the game changed. Frankly, La Decima would have looked a very distant prospect.
He did some tidy work in the first leg too, ensuring United didn’t get more than the one away goal, which turned out to be crucial in the big picture of the tie, and might still be required for the quarter-finals. But even if he isn’t he’s already done enough! Being a key player in the victory over one of the best sides left in the tournament would be a huge contribution to the campaign, and if Barcelona go out next week Real will genuinely be able to look around at the rest of the field and realise that possibly their two strongest rivals have fallen in the round of 16, with Lopez playing a massive part in that shift of momentum towards Los Merengues.
Let’s not forget the Quixotic nature of Jose Mourinho either. When Iker Casillas returns to fitness he’ll be pitched straight into the soap opera he departed when Alvaro Arbeloa helpfully simplified the selection process by trying to kick his hand off! The Special One might well decide that Lopez, as the man in possession, should keep hold of the goalkeeper’s shirt.
Whatever happens though, a rushed signing for what, by Real’s standards, was a paltry €4m, is turning out to be one of their key players this season as they pursue their diminished goals. He arrived after the league title had already been ceded to Barsa, but has not only played his role in the Champions League, but also was between the sticks for the Copa del Rey elimination of the Blaugrana. In nine games he’s conceded eight goals, his record of slightly less than a goal conceded per match representing a slight improvement on what went on before he arrived at the club: before he signed Real were conceding slightly more than one per game this season: 37 goals in 35 games. A small improvement, but incremental shifts can be decisive: ask the Movistar team who are looking to bring cycling glory to Spain by borrowing Sky’s policy of marginal gains!
It’s remarkable to think of the journey Lopez has been on over the last year. It looked like his career was heading in the wrong direction as he struggled to capitalise on the promise of his twenties. Forever linked to a big move, he caught the eye during his five years at Villarreal, but as time passed the shine went off, the gossip ended, and finally he was part of the team which was relegated last season, the Yellow Submarine’s unlikely success story finally sinking under the waves.
A move to Sevilla kept him afloat, but after just two games he was sent off and lost his place to the veteran Andres Palop. Although he returned to the side before the winter break, he hardly set the world on fire, conceding ten goals in seven matches, avoiding letting in two goals in a game just twice. The move to Real seemed to come out of the blue, but he happened to fit rather neatly into what the club appeared to be looking for: an experienced keeper who would probably accept that handing his place back to Iker Casillas when he returned was inevitable. Whether Mourinho sees things that way will be intriguing!
There are always losers in any football tale of course, and in celebrating the success of Lopez, it’s easy to forget poor Antonio Adan. His reputation as one of Spanish goalkeeping’s bright young things now lies in tatters, and if his confidence isn’t in the same state he’s a very strong man indeed.
It’s probably fair to say that he has stagnated on the Bernabeu bench, his promise compromised by the lack of tempering in the heat of battle. Although Mourinho declared that Adan had usurped Casillas purely in terms of his ability, few believed him and Adan’s rusty form made his coach’s words look foolish. Used as a pawn in a game of politics, Adan’s regression was made very public.
Where he goes from here is interesting. Deterioration and disappearance are the obvious destinations for a player who needs to repair his reputation after being very publicly declared unfit for purpose by the coach who claimed he was better than the world’s best goalkeeper just a month earlier. But there is hope for Adan: if he wants an example of how a player’s career can turn swiftly around in the right direction, he need only look at the man who has taken his place.