Before Sunday’s match against Real Betis, Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas’ season didn’t look very good. However, up to that point, one could make a few arguments that he should still start for Madrid.
For instance, his back four has lacked consistency and hasn’t performed as well as in previous seasons due to injuries and different states of form. This term, Navas has seen all possible combinations of Dani Carvajal, Danilo, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Nacho Fernandez, Raphael Varane and Marcelo play in front of him, as changes have happened with no rhyme or reason. A minimum sequence of matches played with the same line hasn’t happened. Even though none is a newcomer, a back four depends heavily on time played together, especially when the team applies a high press and defenders need to be in sync to push the line forward or play the offside trap.
Navas also underwent surgery on his left heel last June, and his recovery took much longer than expected. He came back to play only at the end of September, and in hindsight his first two matches look like a bad omen for the rest of the season. First, in a tough scenario for a comeback — at the Westfalenstadion — a poor first clearance by Navas led to Varane scoring an own goal. Four days later, in a home match against Eibar, the visitors scored after only five minutes on a header by Fran Rico that Navas perhaps should have saved.
Things got better as he progressively recovered match fitness, but the occasional subpar performance here and there kept alive the noise that has often accompanied him since he joined Real Madrid. Then, a last-minute equaliser from Sevilla’s Stevan Jovetic caught Navas out of position and broke Madrid’s remarkable unbeaten run, and the rumours came back in full force.
The fact that keeper Kiko Casilla has played acceptably — better in the Copa del Rey than in La Liga — whenever the Catalan has had a chance hasn’t helped to ease the pressure on Navas, but the most persistent gossip has always involved names outside the club. Manchester United’s David De Gea is still a media favourite when considering replacements, despite the fiasco of his attempted signing 18 months ago. Thibaut Courtois, allegedly in love with Madrid and full of nostalgia, also features high in the list of candidates. And, of course, the new kid in the top keepers block, Gianluigi Donnarumma, is making miracles every weekend for a disappointing AC Milan and has joined the list.
The level of noise went up a few notches more in Madrid’s 2-1 victory over Betis on Sunday. Navas made two grave first-half mistakes — one should have meant his sending off, and another became Betis’ goal — that put the Costa Rican in a qualitatively different situation, one in which even his most staunch defenders have already started to admit it may be time for him to rest while Casilla takes his position. On Tuesday, a poll by Marca showed a majority of fans in favour of sending Navas to the bench, something unthinkable a few months ago.
Of course, Navas performed his best for the club after he became the only real option to start. Ironically, the fax fiasco strengthened his position and gave him the confidence to show his undeniable talent. When he has felt that he might not be the main keeper next season, his trust has gone down. Only trust (or lack of thereof) can explain his recent mistakes, which have nothing to do with his weaker points.
Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has repeatedly voiced his support and will likely stick with Navas in the next few matches. But the keeper is on borrowed time with a sizable section of the fans and, especially, the club’s management. He needs to show that he can deliver even when the rumours about his potential replacements reach their highest point, or else he’ll give his detractors even more reasons to ask for a new keeper.
In fact, Navas should already be used to the rumours. At a club like Real Madrid, they are part of the scenery, and are included in the salary.
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