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Implications of Iker Casillas’ benching


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.

Klinsmann side-steps blame, calls USA-Mexico one of world’s best rivalries

Jurgen Klinsmann, USMNT
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The rivalry between the national soccer teams of the United States and Mexico is one of the fiercest and most unique of its kind in the world of sports. Anyone who’s participated in, or simply attended, a competitive fixture between the two sides will immediately attest to that.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking to ahead of Saturday’s clash against Mexico at the Rose Bowl, it’s quite interesting to hear current USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann describe the rivalry from his point of view, both before and after having coached in it on a number of occasions.

Before we get to that, though, Klinsmann had a bit more blame side step regarding his side’s fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup, the USMNT’s worst-ever showing at the tournament for CONCACAF nations.

Q: What did you learn from this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, where you lost to Jamaica in the semi-finals?

A: There were so many things that happened in the tournament and decisions that were made that affected the outcome. It was difficult for the players to know what to expect. For Mexico and for Panama it was the same thing. The lesson is that you just have to roll with it and try to control the things you can.

What’s the no. 1 thing players can’t control? Who gets called into the team/plays in the games.

What was the no. 1 problem for the USMNT at this summer’s Gold Cup? Who got called up/played game after game despite performing very poorly. Ultimately, it’s what undid them in the semifinals and third-place game.

Just once — once — would it hurt Klinsmann to answer a question with an “I,” or “me,” or even “we?” The question was “What did you learn,” yet the answer always come back to “the players,” or “they,” or “them.” At this point, Klinsmann either believes he’s infallible, or he’s simply trying to see how many ridiculous statements he can get away with.

Q: You’ve been in the top US job for almost five years now and you’ve met Mexico many times. How would you define the rivalry between these countries on the pitch? Can you compare it with others you’ve experienced?

A: The USA-Mexico rivalry is one of the greats in world football. For me, it compares to Germany-Holland in terms of the intensity and emotion it brings out in the fans. As USA coach, it was a learning curve to understand how much this rivalry means to our fans. We had won some games against big nations, but the reaction from everyone to when we went down to [Estadio] Azteca and beat Mexico there for the first time was just amazing.

Q: What makes the rivalry unique?

A: What is unique is that there are so many Mexican-Americans living in the United States, so the rivalry crosses borders. We have seen many times in these last years that younger Mexican-Americans will wear a Mexico jersey to our game, and when we start doing well they take it off and have a U.S. jersey underneath! More and more they’re supporting us, and we hope to continue to win them over.

Klinsmann gets this one absolutely right. With the two countries situated right next to each other, the aforementioned immigration of so many Mexican soccer fans into the U.S., and the classic battles between the two sides over the years, USA-Mexico not only feels amazing to get one over on your rivals, but perhaps more than anything it’s avoiding that feeling of defeat, of embarrassment, of being taunted and haunted for days, weeks, months and sometimes years, that makes beating the old foe so satisfying.

Ozil, Coquelin: Arsenal can win the title this season

Mesut Ozil, Arsenal FC
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I suppose, in theory, that any Premier League club that fields a team could win the league title for a given season, so the above headline could have been written in reference to any one of 20 teams a few short weeks ago.

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Fast forward eight rounds of fixtures to the present day, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer with every passing week that it’s a three-horse race — Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United, who currently sit 1-2-3 atop the league — for the 2015-16 Premier League title.

So — and stick with me for just a second — why not Arsenal? [The crowd gasps loudly] Arsenal midfielders Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin believe the Gunners have what it takes to win the title this year, so why doesn’t anyone else?

Ozil and Coquelin, on Arsenal’s progression to title contenders — quotes from the Guardian:

Ozil: “We have a great team with many world-class players. Our goal is to win the Premier League and I think that this season it’s possible to do it, if we all stay healthy. But the season is long.”

Ozil: “I didn’t expect [Bayern Munich] to beat Dortmund 5-1. Their recent results show they are simply in great shape … But our victory against Manchester United was a sign: when we play and want it 100 percent, then we can beat Bayern.

“We are playing at home. Although we have respect for them, we don’t have any fear. We know how to score goals against Bayern and we can be successful. It will be difficult – but we have the potential to beat any team.”

Coquelin: “We proved a lot of people wrong. Inside the dressing room we knew we could do good things this season. We knew we could be contenders, but obviously we have to be consistent.

“We are getting stronger against the big teams. We beat City last season, now United. It’s all about consistency. The league is getting tougher, so we need to be getting results every week … We knew we had to put it right after Olympiakos and that’s what we’ve done.”

Coquelin is absolutely right — no one expected Arsenal to throttle Man United the way they did on Sunday. The Gunners acquitted themselves quite well, though it should be mentioned that Louis Van Gaal set up United to fail miserably with the immobile midfield duo of Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger against a quick, dynamic Arsenal unit.

[ MORE: “Super computer” predicts final Premier League standings ]

That’s not meant to take anything away from Arsenal’s scintillating performance, because they did exactly what they should be doing against a poorly planned side — that’s not always been the case for Arsenal against top teams. The Gunners will play hosts to Man City on Dec. 19; perhaps we’ll better be able to dub them contenders or pretenders based their showing that day.