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Implications of Iker Casillas’ benching

Dec 22, 2012, 2:19 PM EDT

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - Liga BBVA Getty Images

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.

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