It wasn’t a secret Rafa Benítez tried to hide. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Days after Newcastle United started pre-season training the Spaniard made his feelings clear: he wanted a new goalkeeper for the Magpies’ return to the Premier League.
“I explained from day one that I want somebody with more experience in the Premier League,” Benitez told The Chronicle back in July.
“What I have seen from them I decided Rob Elliot is a good option with experience. Karl Darlow understands my ideas, but he knows we had an offer and considered it. However, we need a keeper with experience and he could still compete with Rob.
“After that we have young Freddie Woodman who has been doing well, although we know that it will be difficult to keep him without playing him.”
And yet, as has happened far too often in recent years, the Newcastle boss didn’t get what he wanted. Benítez had to make do with what he had.
He opted to make Elliot his No.1 and Republic of Ireland international’s form was patchy. He has been in and out of the team since then, occasionally replaced by Darlow but it’s clear Benítez isn’t entirely convinced by either of them.
It is little surprise then that, with the transfer window in full flow, Newcastle have been linked with another goalkeeper; World Cup winner and Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas.
The fall of San Iker
Twenty-five years, 725 appearances, five La Liga titles, three Champions League wins, 161 Spain caps, one World Cup and two European Championships. Casillas’ time at Real Madrid was simply unique.
He was the boy from the outskirts of Madrid who became the club’s homegrown Galactico. A captain, leader, legend in the truest sense and yet, instead of finishing his career at the Bernabéu, basking in the glories that came before, Casillas is in Portugal sitting on a substitutes’ bench.
On Saturday, July 11, 2015 San Iker – Saint Iker – left Real in tears. He was afforded a goodbye press conference but it was hastily arranged and not a fitting way to end one of the most decorated careers in Spanish football history.
“This should only take 30 seconds but I think I’ll take an hour,” an emotional Casillas said. In the end it took him nine minutes to read a prepared statement on his departure. And that was that. He took no questions and gave no answers as to why he was departing. His spectacular Real Madrid tenure was over.
But why? Well José Mourinho had a big role to play. The now Manchester United boss dropped Casillas in December 2012 blaming his poor form as the reason why. It’s true the Spaniard had fallen short of his exemplary standards but reportedly Mourinho didn’t like the sway Casillas had within the dressing room and the media.
That moment was the beginning of the end for Casillas at Real Madrid. He lost his No.1 spot to Diego López and, even though reclaimed it for the 2014/15 season, in which he made 41 appearances, the scars hadn’t healed.
So when the opportunity came up to join Porto in the summer of 2015, he managed, with some difficulty, to negotiate his way out of Real Madrid.
“There was a spell when I was getting a lot of criticism and I needed time away from that,” he said. “I’m happy now and it shows on my face. It was a tough move, but for me this is a new experience with renewed feelings of excitement.”
But those feelings didn’t last long. Casillas was Porto’s No.1 for the 2015/16 campaign but struggled to produce his best form. He made mistakes and eventually lost his place in the Spain side to David de Gea.
At the end of his first campaign away from Madrid, Casillas had the worst ratio of goals conceded per game of any Porto goalkeeper since Opta started collecting data on the Portuguese top flight.
His decline appeared irreversible; whether Mourinho had spotted it earlier or triggered it, however, remained an interesting debate.
The real Casillas returns
Given he’s one of the legends of European football, it’s little surprise that, eventually, Casillas rediscovered what had made him a Real Madrid great.
With Portugal Under-21 international José Sá proving stern competition for the No.1 spot, Casillas seemingly awoke from the slumber that his career had been in for almost four years.
The quick reflex saves which were a staple of his Real Madrid career were back in abundance but, more importantly, so was his confidence. Casillas’ unflappable aura returned and it resulted in the best season of his career, according to the stats at least.
As Porto finished runners-up to Benfica at the end of the 2016/17 campaign, Casillas conceded just 16 goals in his 33 games. He kept 19 clean sheets in the process, the highest total of his career, and his average goals conceded was just 0.48, a figure no other goalkeeper in Europe could match.
“Some will say that, of course, the Portuguese league is not among the best in Europe, and others will recognise that they are very good numbers,” Casillas told Marca last year.
“Last year, people always came out to say that my level was not appropriate, this year is just the opposite. I live in the eternal dilemma, but what I have done after a while here is to be calmer and more relaxed.”
He added: “[Am I] The best in Europe? I don’t know. The best in the world? There are other goalkeepers in big teams playing very well and winning titles, but I think I’m good and that I do not have to bow my head when near goalkeepers that are playing in the big European teams.”
The Porto Problem
When Casillas returned to Porto this summer the club made it clear to him that, if they could, and despite his excellent 2016/17 campaign, the club would be selling their No.1.
The Portuguese giants wanted Casillas’ wages off the books as they attempted to reduce their costs to avoid a Financial Fair Play penalty from UEFA. Arsenal were linked, Liverpool too, but no deal was forthcoming and the now 36-year-old remained at the club.
And he picked up from where he left off last season. Casillas started Porto’s first ten games of the 2017/18 campaign and kept seven clean sheets. However, he was then surprisingly left on the bench for the club’s Champions League defeat at RB Leipzig and has featured just three times since October.
The reason, reportedly, is that Porto want Casillas out this month and feel that in Sá, they have a perfectly capable replacement who is on a fraction of the wages. And this is where Newcastle come in.
How does Casillas compare to Elliot?
There would be a number of logistical issues with trying to sign Casillas in January for Newcastle. Firstly, the club are in the midst of a takeover which could potentially hinder Benítez in the transfer market.
And secondly, Casillas would undoubtedly have to accept a decrease in pay if he is to move to St James’ Park. But he already has a healthy bank balance, so the lure of Premier League could be enough alone for the most capped Spain player of all time.
For Newcastle, it should be a no-brainer. Casillas, even at 36, would be an improvement on Elliot and Darlow. As the below stats show, although Darlow’s two appearance is admittedly not a fair sample size.
There is also the experience factor. It’s what Benítez wanted most in his goalkeeper, and the club will not find anyone with more knowhow of the top flight game than Casillas.
His signing, say on an 18-month deal, would also benefit Woodman. The youngster undoubtedly has potential and proved that by claiming the Golden Glove awarded at the Under-20 World Cup this season.
But he needs a guiding hand and Casillas has a wealth of knowledge he can pass on to the 20-year-old, who was born just two years before Casillas made his Real Madrid debut.
Would making a move for Casillas be a gamble? On the face of it yes. But delve a little deeper and it’s clear he remains a fine goalkeeper who is more than capable of performing in the Premier League and helping Newcastle establish themselves once again in the top flight.