Real Madrid vs Basel: Despite returning as Real's No 1, Iker Casillas faces his biggest challenge yet from within Carlo Ancelotti's camp

A fans poll revealed the Real faithful want Keylor Navas to start tonight's encounter, despite not playing a minute of football since joining Madrid

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The Independent Online

Iker Casillas has faced challenges before, lots of them. The 33-year-old is one of the most experienced and decorated players on the planet having won the World Cup, European Championships, Champions League and La Liga amongst others. He’s lined up umpteen times for his country, often as captain, and El Clásico, arguably the biggest game in club football, but his newest opposition could be the toughest he’s ever faced.

It’s not Basel, who Casillas is set to line-up against tonight as Madrid play the first match in defence of last year’s Champions League triumph. It’s not Barcelona and it’s not neighbours Atlético, who got the better of the goalkeeper and his team on Saturday to leave Carlo Ancelotti’s side with just one win and two defeats from their opening three La Liga matches. Instead, the opposition is from within for Madrid’s club captain, who was subject to loud whistles and groans from his own supporters throughout their weekend defeat to Diego Simeone’s side.

It is a unique situation at a unique club. The Madrid-born shot-stopper joins illustrious company in that past players including Zinedine Zidane, who failed to live up to his reputation on his first few outings for the club, Míchel, Manolo Velázquez and even Alfredo di Stéfano, when post-glory years decline set in, have all felt the wrath of the Bernabéu crowd. Only this time the whistling was defeaning. Those aforementioned stars have their legendary status firmly in tact at the capital club but Casillas’, for all the glory that has gone before, risks being diminished.

“It hurts us just as much as it hurts the fans. We didn’t deliver,” said the Madrid and Spain No.1 following the 2-1 weekend derby defeat. “The crowd call the shots and if they choose to whistle me, I have to find a way to deal with it. I have to keep working hard and respond the way I know best, which is by playing football.”

 

The goalkeeper is, or had, been affectionately known as ‘San Iker’ amongst supporters. ‘Saint Iker’, he could do no wrong. That was until Jose Mourinho decided his performances were not up to scratch and dropped him “for technical reasons” for Los Blancos’ league game at Malaga in December 2012, with Antonio Adan replacing him. Diego Lopez eventually became his long-term successor when he returned to the club in January 2013. That move set the wheels in motion for where Casillas finds himself today.

His confidence, it seemed, was in tatters and even when he did get a recall to the first team by Ancelotti to be Madrid’s goalkeeper of choice in cup competitions last season, he failed to shine. An error in Lisbon almost cost Madrid La Décima and when Vicente del Bosque trusted him to continue as No.1 for the national team in Brazil this summer, Casillas had a nightmare. When Madrid bought Levante’s Keylor Navas, who in contrast enjoyed a superb World Cup for one of the competitions surprise packages in Costa Rica, it seemed only natural that he would become outright No.1 and Casillas would have to settle for more time on the bench, or opt for a move away.

It didn’t work out that way. Navas is yet to play a minute of competitive football for Madrid while Casillas has restored his place as the club’s starter in goal. The Costa Rica is expected to be given his chance in the Copa del Rey but as things stand it will be Casillas who will start each week in the league and also in the Champions League, which kicks-off for the holders against the Swiss side at the Bernabéu tonight.

The match marks the start of Casillas’ darkest hours at the club he was not so long ago deemed as a legend and as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. When the starting line-up is announced on the big screen before the match there will be a large section whistling his name. There will be a large section applauding him to drown out those whistles, as there was on Saturday, but the calls to drop Casillas are no longer the minority.

A poll in Spanish sports newspaper AS revealed fans wanted Navas to start ahead of Casillas against Basel. That’s a view seemingly not shared by Ancelotti, who hinted in no uncertain terms that Casillas is currently his outright No.1 in Monday’s pre-match press conference. “For me the matter is closed,” the Italian said. “I don’t have to put an end to it with words. I have made myself clear. I’m not going to fuel a debate that doesn’t exist within the squad. I will not speak about the goalkeepers this season.” He added: “Casillas has a lot of experience, he understands the situation very well and I will sort it out without any problems.”

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Keylor Navas enjoyed a far more successful World Cup than Casillas

Ancelotti defended Casillas to the hilt after Saturday’s derby defeat. He said he didn’t hear any of the whistles and commented that Casillas should be the last person to blame for Tiago’s opener, which came from another set-piece and left Casillas stranded on his line. Karim Benzema lost the midfielder and he powered his header home at the near post. Casillas may not have directly been to blame for the goal but it is his job to organise his defence effectively and instil confidence in his players. He did, and is doing, neither.

The stories of him being a ‘mole’ inside the Madrid dressing room to try and destabilise Mourinho’s time at the Bernabeu have not helped. The goalkeeper refuted those claims during the Portuguese manager’s time at the club but they have not receded, not even since Mourinho left for Chelsea. Much was also made of Alvaro Arbeloa’s apparent snub of the shot-stopper as the defender encouraged all of his teammates except the goalkeeper before the first leg of this season’s Spanish Super Cup.

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Ancelotti will have a decision to make if Casillas doesn't improve

Casillas is a strong figure within the club. Fifteen years as a first-team player and a cabinet packed with top team and individual honours ensure that. The fear over the summer was that his power could destabilise the squad whether he starts or not. Questions would persist over whether Casillas should start or whether the new man in town should be handed that honour. It seemed best for all parties that the Spain international should opt for pastures new, a fresh start to make life easier for him and for the club he loves. The decisions made over the summer, which included last season’s league regular Diego Lopez moving to AC Milan, have not made things easy.

Whether he makes an error or not tonight, or in the coming matches, the Italian will stick with his club captain for the time being. After such a long spell sitting on the bench Casillas needs games to restore his confidence. He needs good performances, too, to win over those that once idolised him and saw him as Real Madrid personified. Iker Casillas has achieved it all at Real Madrid and the one thing he fears most is losing the faith of the Madrid support. He wants to end his days at the club in a good light rather than as the enemy and the next few weeks and months will be crucial in him achieving that.

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