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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.

Report: Guardiola to take manager’s job at Man City next season

Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Manchester City desperately want to lure Pep Guardiola away from Bayern Munich and pay the Spaniard tactician lots and lots of money to come manage in the Premier League.

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Of course we’ve all heard it before — a number of times, in fact. So, what’s different about the latest report, hitting the headlines very late Thursday night in Europe, linking the 44-year-old to Man City?

Well, apparently, we’ve moved past “Man City will offer Guardiola whatever he wants to come to the Etihad Stadium,” and arrived at “Guardiola has agreed terms to become manager at Man City.”

However, the respected Spanish radio station Cadena COPE is reporting that Guardiola has already decided he would like “a change of scenery” and will succeed Manuel Pellegrini at the Etihad Stadium.

“Pep Guardiola will leave Bayern Munich at the end of this season and will train Manchester City next season,” read the report.

“Guardiola has decided on a change of scenery. He considers his time in Germany will end on 30 June after three seasons and, therefore, fulfil one of his wishes: to coach in England.”

With all due respect to every player Man City have signed in the last decade, the acquisition of Guardiola would be, by far, their greatest coup to date — a manager with a clear ethos, a clear plan of action and a track record of having succeeded and won in the UEFA Champions League, which remains the most elusive trophy to City’s cabinet.

Mourinho-Costa feud could mean January transfer activity for Chelsea

Diego Costa & Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
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Perhaps no man in the footballing world has been embroiled in more controversy this season than Jose Mourinho, who remains in charge of Chelsea despite a horrid start to the club’s 2015-16 Premier League campaign.

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The Portuguese mastermind has fallen out with a number of his own players and staff this season, so why not add another name to the growing list? Come on down, Diego Costa, you’re Mourinho’s next combatant.

The two reportedly got into a heated locker-room exchange following Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Given Costa’s increasingly poor form all the way back to the final weeks and months of the 2014-15 season — just seven goals scored in the last 10 months — Mourinho is reportedly less and less sure the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard is the right man to lead the line for the reigning PL champions.

The details of Mourinho and Costa’s halftime spat, from the Guardian:

Mourinho, just as he did after a similar situation against Norwich on Saturday, made his frustrations clear at the forward’s lack of anticipation over an Eden Hazard pass, which would have provided the striker with a tap-in had he been on the move. Costa returned his manager’s remonstrations in kind. Oscar and John Terry tried to calm him down only to be pushed aside. The manager subsequently suggested there had been “a few kisses, a few cuddles” in the dressing room at the interval, and “no problem,” though the public show of dissent was notable.

The club’s hierarchy is reportedly considering dipping into the transfer market in January — something they’re extremely loath to do — to replace the misfiring Costa. The names of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie and Saido Berahino are the biggest currently linked with the Blues, given the lack of elite players typically available — as well as not being cup-tied in the Champions League — during the January window.

Chelsea, who currently sit 15th in the PL, return to league action on Sunday when they visit Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane (Watch live at 6:30 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra).

Wenger expects “hunting lion” Sanchez to be fit for Norwich clash

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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Alexis Sanchez is, by regular human standards, questionable for Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on Live Extra), thanks to a tweak to his hamstring during Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb.

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There’s just one problem with the above premise: Sanchez, according to manager Arsene Wenger, isn’t exactly human; he’s more like a lion, says Wenger — a hunting lion chasing after and feasting on its prey.

Wenger, on Sanchez’s ability to recover quickly and star for the Gunners — quotes from the Guardian:

“When he does something, he does it 100%. He finishes and you think: ‘He’s dead now.’ But then he recovers and gives 100% again. You always see signs of exhaustion but it’s not [that], because two days later, he’s fine.

“His style is very explosive, it’s a very committed style. Jamie Vardy is a bit similar. When they go, they go. They are like the lion. He has to catch the animal in the first 200 metres. If he doesn’t get there, he’s dead [on his feet] afterwards. They are these kind of killers. When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop.”

“I take information, especially from the medical people who know him and treat him everyday and after, we look at his overall recovery as well. When there are alarming signs, we want to make the right decision at the right moment but as long as the guys are confident, they score goals – it is always difficult to rest them.”

Sanchez’s production this season — 9 goals, 4 assists in 17 appearances – all competitions — is right on par with his spectacular debut in the PL last season. “What is also remarkable is that he goes to South America to play,” Wenger went on to say. “He comes back on Thursday night and on Saturday he can play without a problem, even if he’s jet-lagged.”

Expect Sanchez to feature on Sunday, and probably to score a goal or two, as well.

“Unprofessional” Grealish banished to U-21s after nightclub incident

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa FC
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2015 has been an eventful calendar year for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, to say the least.

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First, there was his emergence as a prominent first-team player for his boyhood club; followed by the Villans’ run to the FA Cup final in May; then came the England-versus-Ireland tug-of-war for his international services; a forgettable vacation to Spain for the 20-year-old; and another managerial change at Villa Park. After yet another off-field incident last weekend, in which Grealish was photographed in a nightclub hours after a 4-0 defeat to Everton, his new manager, Remi Garde, has labeled Grealish “unprofessional” and sent him away to train with the club’s U-21 side.

Garde, on Grealish’s actions and subsequent punishment — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is not professional. It is not what is expected from my players. That is why now Jack is training with the under-21 team for the moment. He won’t be included in the squad for Watford. At this stage he is not playing this weekend and he is training with the under-21 team. That is all I can say for the moment.”

“Sometimes players in every country ask to stay in the city we have played in and this is not a problem for me, it happens one or two times a season. The problem with Jack was not that he wasn’t on the bus. The problem was elsewhere.”

Villa, who will welcome 13th-place Watford to Villa Park on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Live Extra), currently sit rock bottom in the Premier League (5 points from 13 games), five points away from climbing out of the relegation zone.