Iker Casillas' Real Madrid days numbered since Mourinho's reign
There is a certain twisted irony that the club which gave birth to Jose Mourinho should now serve as the graveyard for one of his great opposers. Iker Casillas will play out the final days of his career at Porto, in the shadow of the man who began his downfall. When the self-proclaimed "Special One" arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, the 162-capped Spaniard was at the peak of his powers. Now he has been cast out.
In the belly of Estadio do Dragao lie countless reminders of Mourinho's enduring legacy, in posters, mosaics, and, crucially, silverware. Now another of his battles will see the final chapter written on the Porto turf -- though the current Chelsea coach might wonder if Casillas' place, like his own legacy in Portugal's second city, would be better consigned to a museum. It was he who first questioned the goalkeeper's ability, first challenged his authority and first dropped him from the Madrid starting XI.
"Would I do anything differently if I had the chance to do the past three years over again," pondered Mourinho as time ran out on his reign at Madrid, his tail not far enough between his legs to deny him a parting shot at the man he blamed for his unsuccessful stay. "I should have brought in Diego Lopez after my first year. We didn't do enough to sign him. It's a real shame."
Mourinho has something of a penchant for rewriting history, and his mischievous comments betray quite how good Casillas had been in their first year together. The then 30-year-old goalkeeper, at the very peak of his powers having lifted the World Cup, continued to excel in the 2010-11 campaign as Madrid finished just four points behind Josep Guardiola's scintillating Barcelona side, though a five-goal evisceration at Camp Nou suggested there was still a gulf in class between the two sides.
A UEFA Champions League semifinal exit to that same foe, and the prolonged wait for La Decima, might have ramped up the pressure on Mourinho, but he was saved by a Copa del Rey title that was only made possible by Casillas. The keeper made countless fine saves, none more so then to deny Andres Iniesta in the final at the Mestalla. Goalkeeper coach Silvino Louro claimed the sprawling, fingertip stop was the best he had ever seen. Mourinho's reaction on the bench suggested similar -- but he would never admit it.
He was so good, in fact, that Mourinho hailed him as the world's best goalkeeper in 2011 and backed his skipper to claim the Ballon d'Or, though it would be Lionel Messi that took that honor. Nevertheless, Casillas was named the IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper for the fourth straight year.
A record-breaking, goal-filled title triumph followed in the next campaign, and Casillas would concede one goal fewer and keep one clean sheet more, as Madrid lost just twice and broke the 100-point barrier. Six months later, in Mourinho's final season, the Spaniard's exile would begin, but, despite the public platitudes, the seeds of disharmony were already beginning to be sewn.
Mourinho was already concerned by Casillas' performances on the pitch, as uncharacteristic sloppiness and anxiety started to creep into his game. The coach was wary, scared even, of the power "the goalkeeper" as he came to belittlingly reference him as, exerted in both the locker room and the Bernabeu's corridors of power. He was uncomfortable, too, with the notion that the player's partner -- sports journalist Sara Carbonero -- was privy to inside information. Mourinho is used to total control, but in Casillas he found a player who held more sway than any he had managed previously.
In the build-up to Euro 2012, Casillas became concerned by the direction in which Madrid's identity was heading and the impact it could have on Spain. He called Xavi and Carles Puyol to negotiate a ceasefire, taking ownership of the recent fracases and apologizing, but this served only to incense Mourinho who felt it was a sign of weakness and would reinforced Madrid's "bad guy" image. Vicente Del Bosque would later describe the phone call as the final nail in his relationship with Mourinho.
It was also key to a harmonious Spanish camp and another major international honor, after which Casillas' form unquestionably dipped. But Mourinho's willingness to axe him against Malaga in December 2012 and instead field Antonio Adan, a 25-year-old keeper from the club's academy with just three La Liga starts in his career, suggested it was not merely the "purely technical" decision the manager made it out to be.
By now Mourinho and Casillas hardly spoke at all, while there were rumors of friction between the goalkeeper and players represented by Jorge Mendes. Defeat to Malaga had left Madrid a long way adrift of Barca and discontent was seeping into the newspapers. Marca published a detailed, verbatim account of a training-ground bust-up, and Mourinho's suspicions as to the identity of the mole, or Topor, were firmly focused on one person.
But a fractured hand and the recruitment of Diego Lopez in January 2013 began to alter the narrative. The manger had been jeered over his decision to drop Casillas, though the whistles quickly died down as Real picked up 39 points from a possible 48 with Lopez between the sticks. The 6'5" shot-stopper was exuding the match-winning presence Casillas had only shown sporadically.
"I like Diego Lopez as a goalkeeper more than Casillas," explained Mourinho. "It's not personal. I like a goalkeeper that comes out and dominates the airspace and plays with his feet. Iker is fantastic under the posts." That appraisal was justified, with Lopez making 1.81 catches per game compared to Casillas's 0.94, while his catch success was 13.3% higher, too. Lopez's save percentage (73% compared to 66%) ranked him fourth in La Liga, while Casillas wallowed in 24th.
But Mourinho's words, no matter their merit, were taken as public criticism of a player deemed beyond reproach by many in the squad. Sergio Ramos was livid, while Pepe -- once considered a key ally of his countryman, captain material and the personification of the style Mourinho sought to impose -- described the comments as "inappropriate". The centerback was rumored to be one of three players, along with Ramos and Casillas, who told president Florentino Perez that he had to choose between them or the manager.
Perez sided with the players, though he may now wish he hadn't. Carlo Ancelotti came in as Mourinho's successor but stuck with Lopez as his No.1, and even Casillas' two-fingered salute to his old boss, namely winning La Decima, was caveated by the fact that his error (which came from an inability to command his box) almost gifted Atletico victory. By the time Cristiano Ronaldo had put the result beyond doubt, it was relief, not ecstasy, that was etched on his face.
For a long time, Casillas' axing by Mourinho was painted as something personal, a vendetta, a clash of egos, but his performances last summer for Spain, notably at fault as the then holder was hammered by the Netherlands, coupled with how fallible he appeared relative to Lopez, started to turn Madrid fans against him. Maybe Mourinho was right all along, they pondered, following a campaign that brought only the relatively minor successes of the FIFA Club World Cup and European Super Cup.
All the while, the specter of David de Gea, ironically another Mendes client, has lurked menacingly. Casillas may have kept the 24-year-old at bay at international level, but he has long been the heir apparent at Madrid. His lightning-fast reflexes and Premier League-honed authority represent everything Casillas once was.
The key question, though, is whether Mourinho predicted Casillas' decline or caused it. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The 34-year-old's dominance could not last forever -- and, with or without the Portuguese's help, Madrid would have been looking for a successor by now anyway -- but perhaps he might have left on a high had he not been ground down by the war with Mourinho. The manager exposed chinks in his own captain's armor and accelerated his fall from grace. Yet, if there is life left in the old dog, Casillas could not have picked a more perfect place to prove it.
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