Implications of Iker Casillas’ benching

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Some serious shock and awe here.

When teams were announced an hour ago for today’s Primera Division meeting between Málaga and Real Madrid, Los Blancos’ starting XI was missing one very notable name: captain Iker Casillas. Perhaps worse, his name was listed on the bench, which realistically precluded this being a fitness concern.

Iker Casillas got benched. Twenty-five-year-old Antonio Adan starts in his place.

The last time Casillas missed a match for competitive reasons was 2002. Casillas was 21 years old. Between 2002-03 and 2011-12, Casillas played in 371 out of a possible 380 La Liga games – 97.6 percent. Almost every match he missed was after Spain’s title was decided.

Of course, you can argue Spain’s title has already been decided this year. Real Madrid came into the weekend 13 points behind league-leading Barcelona. At kickoff at the Rosaleda, the gap was 16, Barcelona’s victory at Real Valldolid moving the Blaugrana nine clear of second place Atlético.

MORE: Real Madrid loss forces consideration of the unthinkable

As you might expect, social media erupted when news of José Mourinho’s decision spread. Surprisingly, most of the reaction was along the lines of “finally,” a response to Casillas’s dip in form.

The reaction, however, was a little too much. The implication that Casillas has somehow fallen off the face of the goalkeeping earth is wrong. Saint Iker has not been saintly this season, but he hasn’t been terrible. Real Madrid still has the second-best defense in La Liga, and it’s highly unlikely Casillas wasn’t the best goalkeeper on the team when they arrived in Málaga.

Where Casillas has failed is in living up to expectations – a reputation that held him as the best goalkeeper in the world. Whether you bought into that hype or not, this year Casillas hasn’t kept himself in the conversation, and compared to that high standard, this year’s Saint has proved a sinner. He’s dared to make mistakes.

This feels more like a wakeup call than a permanent decision. The permanent benching of the team’s captain would have major implications on the squad.

But perhaps that’s what Mourinho wants. Perhaps Mourinho is so desperate to wake up a squad he’s expressed concern about since match one that he’s gone nuclear. He’s benched Iker Casillas, providing the ultimate sign that nobody’s untouchable.

MORE: Mourinho extends best wishes to Vilanova

He could have benched Cristiano Ronaldo, but after Ronaldo’s unhappy spell earlier this year, that move would have blown up in Mourinho’s face. Likewise, dropping Pepe could have backfired, while benching Xabi Alonso or Mesut Ozil would have little effect. Perhaps to his detriment, Casillas has the maturity to put this in perspective.

But this may also be the desperate tactic of a man who knows this is his last season in Madrid. It’s hard to fathom Mourinho going to this card if he was thinking about long term solutions. If he was, Mourinho would be more likely to ride out this rocky time rather than setting off a firecracker.

People have Mourinho going to Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City after the season. I wouldn’t count out Chelsea, either. But Mourinho’s time has come at Real Madrid. Otherwise, this move wouldn’t have been made.

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern wins it late, Leverkusen goes second

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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It looked like Bayern Munich was on pace to drop points for just the fifth time this season, but then the club’s star striker stepped up in the biggest of moments.

[ MORE: TFC on the brink of adding Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ager Aketxe ]

The German leaders came back to pick up a 2-1 victory on the road at Wolfsburg after Robert Lewandowski converted a penalty kick in stoppage time.

Sandro Wagner’s second-half header had pulled the match level off of an Arjen Robben cross in the 64th minute. Robben atoned for an earlier penalty-kick miss, which would have tied the match ten minutes prior.

Meanwhile, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke were each big winners on the day, with the two clubs moving into the top four.

Leverkusen’s 2-1 win on the road against Hertha Berlin saw Heiko Herrlich and his side move up to second place in the Bundesliga, albeit a lengthy distance behind leaders Bayern.

Schalke took care of business at home against Hoffenheim, bringing the Miners one step closer to the top four. The side is now level on 37 points with Borussia Dortmund for fourth, but the Christian Pulisic and Co. currently boast a superior goal differential.

Below are all of Saturday’s scores from around Germany’s top flight.

Cologne 1-1 Hannover 96
Hertha Berlin 1-2 Bayer Leverkusen
Freiburg 1-0 Werder Bremen
Wolfsburg 1-1 Bayern Munich
Schalke 2-0 Hoffenheim

Rodchenkov to AP: Russian footballers immune from drug bans

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Russian doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov claims he helped soccer players in the country to avoid being caught doping after he followed government orders to ensure cheating was covered up.

[ MORE: Mourinho denies Pogba exit rumors ]

The former Russian anti-doping laboratory director told The Associated Press in response to questions through his lawyer that an instruction to avoid scandal came from Vitaly Mutko. Mutko is the former Russian sports minister who serves as deputy prime minster despite being at the center of the doping deception controversy exposed by Rodchenkov.

The focus is sharpening on doping practices in Russian soccer with the World Cup kicking off in Moscow in four months.

Rodchenkov says “Russian footballers were immune from doping-control actions or sanctions.”

Rodchenkov claimed Mutko said “avoid any scandal by hiding positive results” and that “doping would be handled internally”.

Video: Rondon’s exquisite volley not enough to save West Brom

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Salomon Rondon’s second-half volley was not only a beauty, but one of tremendous difficulty.

Unfortunately for he and his West Bromwich Albion side, though, it wasn’t enough for the Baggies to survive in this season’s FA Cup fifth-round tie against Southampton.

[ MORE: Brilliant Messi through ball sends Suarez in for Barcelona opener ]

The Saints progressed to the quarterfinals on Saturday behind goals from Wesley Hoedt and Dusan Tadic, and join fellow Premier League sides Chelsea, Brighton & Hove and Leicester City in the final eight.

Tadic’s goal came in the 56th minute, doubling the Southampton lead, but Rondon’s quality volley two minutes later provided West Brom with a temporary moment of relief (below).

Video: Brilliant Messi through ball sends Suarez in on goal

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With a blockbuster UEFA Champions League clash against Chelsea right around the corner for Barcelona, the Spanish league leaders look on pace to extend their perfect La Liga record.

[ MORE: Willian dazzles for Chelsea in FA Cup win over Hull ]

Despite rumors that Lionel Messi and some of Barcelona’s biggest stars would be rested ahead of Tuesday’s match against the London side, the Argentine superstar not only started at Eibar on Saturday, but made a brilliant impact in the 17th minute.

Messi linked up with Luis Suarez after playing the Uruguayan through towards goal from a tremendous defense-splitting pass that sent the striker in for the 1-0 lead.

Barcelona has yet to lose in domestic competition this season, boasting an 18-5-0 record heading into Saturday’s meeting with Eibar. Additionally, Messi and Co. currently hold a plus-49 goal differential, which was lifted to plus-50 with Suarez’s finish.

The Blaugrana are the last team in Europe’s five major leagues to remain unbeaten in league play.