Time for keepers to suit up and be superheroes

“Even Superman is sometimes just Clark Kent” said the banner held up by Juventus fans on Saturday after a troubled 10 days for Gigi Buffon.
Time for keepers to suit up and be superheroes

Italy’s legendary goalkeeper — he’s 39 in January — had blundered to allow Spain to score in their World Cup qualifier, and also looked uncomfortable against Macedonia, when he was beaten twice in three minutes.

Back in club colours at the weekend, he made a hash of a ground shot against Udinese, diving late over a ball he would normally have hoped to stop or deflect past the post.

No real damage was done — Juventus won the match and Italy took four points from their two games — but it shows how even the most reliable goalkeepers can make elementary errors, at a time when their role is becoming even more of a challenge.

This week’s Champions League matches will again put keepers under the spotlight, especially tomorrow night in Camp Nou.

Barcelona and Manchester City ought to produce some memorable attacking football and Marc-André ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo are both potential superheroes and possible fall guys.

Back in Barcelona less than two months after being signed by Pep Gurdiola to replace Joe Hart, Bravo has things to prove to both sets of fans.

When he replaced Victor Valdès, Bravo could hardly have begun his Barcelona career better. He was unbeaten for 12 and a half hours of play at the start of the season — an unprecedented achievement in Spain — and at the end of the season was a whisker away from beating the record for fewest goals conceded.

But when ter Stegen was preferred to Bravo for cup games, including the Champions League final against Juventus, the competition seemed to unnerve the Chilean.

Rotation has always been controversial with keepers — it very rarely seems to get the best from both — and neither of the two contenders was happy. Exit Bravo.

Guardiola wanted him at City because he is happy with the ball at his feet and comfortable with defenders playing it out from the back. That was also why Barcelona signed ter Stegen back in 2014.

The sweeper-keeper role is one of his strengths, though you might not realise it from recent performances, particularly the clanger-strewn 4-3 defeat against Celta Vigo.

There are bound to be comparisons between past and present, both tomorrow and in the return fixture.

Tonight’s fixtures also feature goalkeepers with something to prove.

One is Igor Akinfeev, captain of CSKA Moscow, who seems to have been around forever but is still only 30.

It’s almost 10 years since he managed a clean sheet in the Champions League, yet he is possibly the most underrated goalkeeper in the competition.

The Russians have an unofficial clean-sheet league known as the Lev Yashin Club, and Akinfeev is top of the all-time list, with 245 in just under 500 games. Even Petr Cech trails by comparison.

By rights, he ought to have been signed by one of the top clubs — Alex Ferguson was an admirer years back — but a series of injuries and the occasional howler have been against him, so far at least.

There’s also bound to be interest in how Kasper Schmeichel performs against Danish opposition. Leicester are in the unusual position of being favourites, but Copenhagen are on a roll, unbeaten in 23 matches since May, better than any other side in the Champions League.

In goal for the Danes is a Swede — Robin Olsen — who’s in his first season at the club and will be keen to show his quality against English opposition, although he stands out more for his height than his ballplaying skills.

There are a few other youngsters who are keen to make a good impression in the group stage, notably Adrian Semper at Dinamo Zagreb, promoted to first choice at just 18, and perhaps the best goalkeeping prospect around after Gigio Donnarumma at Milan.

Semper, like Olsen, has height on his side. But keepers of 6ft4in or more are still the exception not the rule. Keepers are on average taller than they were 10 years ago, but there is no sign of basketball players taking over just yet.

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