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Graham Hunter: Iker Casillas could be the Kryptonite to Atletico’s super season

La Liga guru Graham Hunter dissects the Champions League final between local rivals Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, and ponders which keeper will prove key.

by Graham Hunter | May 23, 2014

In September 1999 a young buck by the name of Iker Casillas made his debut for Real Madrid.

From that auspicious day until this he has never lost to Atlético Madrid in a game when he’s been in the starting XI.

The anomaly is that Saint Iker’s debut in a derby came when Albano Bizzarri was sent off and the young Madrileño came on, in Autumn 1999, with the score already 3-1 to Aleti.

A defeat – but his only one against Los Rojiblancos in this brilliant, trophy-laden career of his.

Now clearly there were other factors. Raúl at his peak – ditto Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zidane, Luis Figo, Guti, Roberto Carlos, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The list of thorns in Atleti’s side is long.

But Casillas gradually became kryptonite to his neighbours. The fact that he has a record of 26 straight city derbies without defeat is pretty remarkable.

What I think is still more tantalizing, in light of the Champions League final in Lisbon, is that Atlético have rid themselves of their ‘Madriditis’, not having won a derby from 1999-2013, with consecutive victories – last season’s Copa final and the first league meeting of this season.

But both those wins were registered when Casillas was on the bench and Diego Lopez the first choice keeper.

Back on the Cas’

As soon as Casillas returned against Los Colchoneros, in the Copa semi final this season, not only did Madrid re-establish their stranglehold by knocking their neighbours out they did so by scoring five times … and not conceding once.

Sometimes a player can have an influence which is exponentially greater than his role should allow.

Casillas is a fine keeper (he’s won the World Cup and the European Championship, this will be his 142nd Champions League match, he’s won this competition twice and he has the best win ratio in the history of international football – 112 wins in 153 matches)

But he’s also made of the winning stuff. He’s not utterly nerveless but he does undergo a kind of transformation in match-defining moments – when his blood turns to ice.

Perhaps he earns some of his ‘luck’ via hard work but what’s undeniable is that beyond the saves he makes thanks to athleticism, hard practice, experience, lightning reactions he does appear to produce moments which underline his ‘San’ Iker (Saint Iker) nickname here in Spain.

We are fortunate to be watching a game in which the guy who I think is going to be the world’s dominant keeper for years to come is defending the other end.


Triple A – Above Average Atletico

Diego Simeone’s impact on Atlético has been almost immeasurable.
The players feel taller, more handsome, smarter and wittier. That’s the Simeone effect. Average players become good, good become great … one day he may even have the chance to show that he can make a great player the very best.

For all the importance of Diego Costa, Gabi, Koke and Diego Godín, Simeone has been the most important factor in Atlético’s arrival as a genuine player on the European scene.

However in terms of having the beating of Real Madrid there’s a right good case to argue that Courtois is the only player at the Calderón who has had the same value.

Football moves so fast that, to some, the Copa Del Rey final last May might have edged out of the memory slightly. However despite Atleti winning, despite the glorious goal which Radamel Falcao set up for Costa to break through and score …. Madrid absolutely battered their neighbours that night.

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Courtois was superhuman. No. Way. Should. He. Have. Kept. Madrid. Out.

Once Ronaldo headed Los Blancos in front (how often to Atleti lose headed goals now?) Madrid made massively more and better chances than the ultimate winners – but the Belgian, effectively, did an Iker.

I hope we get a clear winner, and given the way that players have been dropping like flies in recent weeks, just ahead of the World Cup, I really hope it’s without extra time.

However nobody would be shocked if this ended up 2-2 and a penalty shoot-out. How epic that would be – Casillas’s skills and nerve v Courtois’ ‘thou-shalt-not-pass’ attitude.

On the subject of physical resources this is one area where Atletico SHOULD have an edge.

Ok, great deal of physical and emotional energy will have been expended around last weekend’s Liga-winning match at the Camp Nou. The party started immediately and wound down in the early (early!) hours of Monday morning.

Fit For Purpose

However, thanks to the fitness guru in whom Diego Simeone puts absolute trust Atlético have spent most of this season with a bigger engine than the majority of their opponents.

The second half surge at Stamford Bridge in the semi final was simply another example – as was the all-out assault on Barcelona in the ten minutes before and after half time last weekend. A league winning blitzkreig.

More, Madrid have some issues. The last few matches have suffered from a vague ‘last week at school’ feeling.

Not fully focussed, not giving everything and not expecting to have that demanded of them either.

When we talk about the delicate nuances which influence how a very big match will go, arriving in fully battle-hardened mode – not trying to gee yourself back up after a ‘foot off the pedal’ fortnight – can make a winning difference.

Madrid needed a last-minute equaliser for a point at home to Valencia, conceded the title by conceding an 87th minute equaliser at subsequently-relegated Valladolid, were trampled on in Vigo, never competing properly with Celta (2-0) and conceded an 89th minute goal last week at home to Espanyol.

Now throw in the ‘missing’ and ‘might be missing’ list and it’s troublesome for the club seeking ‘La Decima’


Rather Xab’ Than Xab’ Not

That Alonso is out is pretty nearly as important as the fact that Iker is in.

While the dog-end of the season made him look as if he required a little rest to seek mental and physical freshness it’s still the case that Madrid are less organized, less co-ordinated and less intelligent without him.

Importantly, I believe, of the two defeats Madrid to Atleti have suffered in the last year the only one which was ragged, pallid and pretty much dominated by Los Rojiblancos was the one where Alonso was absent. Just as he will be on Saturday night.

It’s also the case that while this final has been analyzed it seems to me that the Copa ties this season have been ‘handily’ forgotten.

Madrid not only won they got all the luck going, they got tucked into Atleti physically, they were far more intense athletically and they looked as if they had mental dominance too.

They were evidence, I thought, that while Atlético’s work under Simeone has been so intense (Gabi is top equal and Raúl Garcia is second in the list of the top three players who’ve committed the most fouls in this Champions League) that they often make other teams seem like eight stone weaklings, Madrid were still able to bully Atleti in those two matches. Significantly so.

Can The Ref Kuip’ Things Calm?

Thus to the referee. Bjorn Kuipers. His record in the Champions League looks as if it might suggest a minor edge for Atleti. He’s pretty liberal, likes to let play flow, tries very hard not to book. Overall he averages just barely over three bookings per match in this competition. Yet if he feels a line has been crossed he’s unafraid of the red.

When Bayern Munich played Napoli in 2011 and when Porto tried to kick Barcelona out of the European Supercup that same year he sent two players off in each match.

Simeone makes no bones about being willing to put opposition off their game with street-smart tactics and Gabi, in particular, revels in that. Kuipers will give them some leeway … but judging the line in the sand will be important for Atletico.

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Worth a thought:

  • Madrid still haven’t dealt with their deficiencies, aerially, and Simeone’s side do like a headed goal/set piece.
  • The teams’ last three results leave the aggregate score 7-2 in Madrid’s favour
  • IF Ancelotti trusts Illarramendi to take over from Alonso the midfielder will need to improve his speed of thought, distribution and his confidence from the player we’ve seen in the last few weeks.
  • Gareth Bale might be coping with niggling pain and hasn’t trained full out this week but whenever Cristiano Ronaldo has been out Bale has come to the fore. In Munich he created a wonderful assist for CR7 and his was the Copa Del Rey final winning goal. A man for the moment.
  • Just as Alonso’s absence appeared to influence the first league game of the season which Atletico coasted, Pepe was missing for last season’s Copa Final defeat and was influential in Madrid winning the two Copa games this season. He is not fully fit and, I think, is very unlikely to start. A brute, but a brute that Madrid will miss.

Until Madrid started feeling the aches and pains of the season and gifted away points in three of the last four matches I was convinced, wholly that they’d win this final. Principally because of Casillas, Bale and Ronaldo I still slightly favour them. But better get extra beer and pizza in. It might be a long night .. and then spot kicks.

Whatever happens, Europe belongs to Madrid on Saturday night.


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