All eyes will be on Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz tonight as Madrid rivals Real and Atletico do battle to see who will be crowned kings of Europe.
With the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema all on display, it is not hard to see why this year’s final is such a mouth-watering prospect for the neutral. However, for all that attacking talent, it would be foolish to forget that this clash will see two of the world’s best goalkeepers face off; the winner of this personal duel between Iker Casillas and Thibaut Courtois could determine the outcome of Saturday’s showdown.
In Courtois, Atletico boast a 22-year-old goalkeeper who is already garnering worldwide praise. The on-loan custodian has impressed during his three-year spell at the Vicente Calderon, amassing over 100 senior appearances for Diego Simeone.
The improved fortunes of the Rojiblancos this term has elevated Courtois into the global spotlight, and the youngster is now being touted as one of the best goalkeepers in world football. According to Peter McVite of Goal.com, Casillas himself has publicly pinpointed Courtois, alongside Manchester United’s David de Gea, as one of the "goalkeepers of the future."
However, while Courtois' meteoric rise to prominence somewhat mirrors that of Casillas' in the late 1990s, it should be remembered that the Real Madrid captain is still No. 1.
Casillas is the best goalkeeper of a generation and will rightly be remembered as one of the all-time greats. And, at 33 years old, he still has plenty of time on his hands and will be desperate to add another medal to an already vast collection.
The Real Madrid and Spain legend has won everything the professional game has to offer. In addition to that, he is the leading appearance maker for his country and has been a constant at the heart of Spanish football’s most glittering era.
And, as manager Carlo Ancelotti attempts to lead the Blancos to a 10th European Cup, Casillas is just 90 minutes away from completing a "Decima" of his own.
Per Ben Haywood of Goal.com: "In 10 finals for Spain and Real Madrid (not including Super Cups or one-off ties like the Intercontinental Cup), the 33-year-old goalkeeper has lost only once and conceded just five times." The most recent victory came in this season’s Copa del Rey final, in which Real defeated fierce foe Barcelona 2-1.
It is worth noting that Casillas kept two clean sheets against Atletico in that same competition as Real ran out 5-0 aggregate winners. In contrast, the Rojiblancos found the target three times in two La Liga matches—a competition in which Ancelotti has opted to use Diego Lopez instead.
Casillas is still very much a force to be reckoned with, and you only need to look at the fact he continues to retain the gloves for Spain as vindication to his worth. At club level, this has been a truly testing 18-month period, but it hasn’t prevented him from performing to the highest standard whenever he has been afforded the chance.
Per WhoScored.com, Casillas has kept five clean sheets in 12 Champions League appearances this season and boasts a match rating of 7.07. Additionally, he has made an average of 3.67 saves per game. These stats suggest that he at least matches, if not exceeds, the performances of tonight’s adversary.
The Real Madrid captain was also in fine form during the club’s successful Copa del Rey run, keeping eight consecutive clean sheets in that competition. In fact, as reported by ESPN’s Dermot Corrigan, Casillas even set a new club record for minutes without conceding.
Some doubters may point to the inferior level of opponent in the Copa del Rey, but that cannot be used to dismiss Casillas’ efforts.
Iker Casillas: Has made more saves (44) than any other goalkeeper in the CL this season #UCL— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) May 24, 2014
As well as still being at the top of his game, the Blancos captain’s experience will come in useful in Lisbon. Despite all the talent on show, a Champions League final will be new territory for most of the players tonight.
Who will win the final?
Casillas, though, has already lifted this trophy on two occasions and is Real’s only survivor from when they last won the competition back in 2002. It will be a night for cool heads in Lisbon, and the Blancos captain is as calm as they come.
In spite of limited playing time, this has still been a productive season for Casillas. Completing a personal hat-trick of Champions League victories would be the perfect way to cap it.
The Bernabeu legend has been the club’s hero on numerous occasions over the years, perhaps tonight will be his crowning achievement.
Will Real get the better of Atletico tonight? Post your score predictions below.