Iker Casillas (Spain) v Manuel Neuer (Germany)
There’s an element of the master and the apprentice to the match up of Casillas and Neuer. Or to use a more contemporary and equally questionable analogy, Dr. Evil and Mini-Me. At 24 years of age, Neuer is threading in the studmarks of the Spanish number 1. At a similar age, there could be little doubt that Casillas was a goalkeeper of some talent, but he was rough around the edges and even rougher under the high ball. But he constantly worked at his game and several years – and several inevitable howlers – later, he ranks amongst the handful of truly elite goalkeepers in the world.
His displays at this World Cup perhaps indicate why he was able to make the transformation from potential star to proven stalwart. He hasn’t been at his very best during the tournament, but his workrate and awareness have compensated on a couple of occasions when his technique failed him. A prime example was against Portugal. Against teams who struggle to mount meaningful attacks, the temptation is to switch off and think about your holidays – or in the case of Casillas your stunningly attractive girlfriend who’s on the sidelines. On a rare occasion when Portugal did get a threatening ball into the Spanish box, the flight of the infamous Jabulani ball took a late dip and what looked to be a simple catch turned into a problem. Yet – once it dawned on him catching it was going to prove tricky – he had the sense to get the ball away from danger with a volleyball-esque ‘scoop’ that Thierry Henry would be proud of. Against Paraguay, the tidy penalty save against Cardozo got the headlines with it was later on that his reactions truly saved Spain. After Casillas uncharacteristically spilled a shot from Barrios, the ball broke to Roque Santa Cruz. Without top class awareness, the striker would have a straight-forward task of slotting it home, but Casillas was quick to recover and got out to block Santa Cruz from point-blank range.
As wanky as it sounds, there’s a lesson to be learned for Neuer in how Casillas has progressed. The German is a goalkeeper of talent, but far from perfect at the moment. Against England and Argentina he showed his excellent reactions with a couple of world class saves, but those performances were littered with minor errors that could become major embarrassments. His handling was suspect against Argentina and as yet isn’t assertive enough when coming to collect crosses. Any criticism of him must be qualified with difficult situation he finds himself him. Firstly, he is extremely young and wouldn’t be German number 1 had it not been for the distressing suicide of Robert Enke. As a human, pulling on that jersey must remind him, even if only briefly of the recent tragedy. Even then, it was likely Rene Adler would take the position ahead of him had it not been for an injury that ended the Leverkusen keeper’s season prematurely. Then the normal impact of being involved in a game of immense pressure must also be taken into account. All in all, it’s probably a miracle he gets out of bed in the morning, so let’s not throw too much abuse his way.
The Germans have an extremely talented young squad, but that inexperience extends to the one position on the field were in can be most exposed. Neuer will become an excellent goalkeeper in the not too distant future, but he’s the weak link in a strong chain at present. Spain have the stronger goalkeeper and with so much attacking talent on show, that could prove pivotal in the second semi-final.