Hard-Working Keylor Navas Ready to Make His Mark in Madrid

Keylor-Navas-Real-Madrid

Back in mid-2014, La Liga side Levante finished in 10th place. It was an impressive result considering their relatively low budget, and in the main, it was brought about by an incredibly mean defence. They conceded 43 goals for the campaign, a figure only bettered in Spain by the league’s top four teams. Under Joaquin Caparros, they were gritty and tough, difficult to break down and tremendously dogged in defence. What they lacked in financial muscle they made up for with the physical kind, and while they were a unit built upon cohesion and unyielding perseverance, there was one man who stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Before every game he would kneel down, between the two posts, and spread his arms out in an order to pray. He was often insulted for doing so, but once the whistle sounded and the game was underway, the insults soon evaporated. So good was Keylor Navas, in fact, that he made more saves than any other net-minder in Spain that season, with 163. He topped the charts for interventions, too, with his 268 a figure far superior to that of Almeria’s Esteban, the next best, who recorded 245 for the same statistic.

Across Europe’s top five leagues, only four sides conceded more shots than Levante, meaning that Navas was busier than most. But while that allowed him to rack up the saves on a regular basis, it’s also worth noting that he saved a higher percentage of shots than any other keeper in Spain. In that sense, he continued to perform even under the most testing of circumstances, and as a consequence it was throughout the 2013-14 campaign that his reputation was forged.

Navas was no longer a little-known Costa Rican shot stopper, nor was he the player who had only just started to establish himself in the Spanish top-flight. Now, after a number of seasons slugging it out at a lower standard, he was amongst the game’s elite. “He is to us what Diego Costa is to Atlético Madrid or Carlos Bacca to Sevilla, guys who score 20-plus goals a season,” Caparros asserted at the time. “For me, he’s the best goalkeeper in the world.”

That might have seemed a stretch initially, but these claims continued to gain traction in the off-season. Navas kept 17 clean sheets for the campaign, and although Thibaut Courtois kept more, with 20, it was the Costa Rican who claimed La Liga’s goalkeeper of the season award. He also broke Levante’s record for most consecutive minutes without conceding, in what was undoubtedly a year in which he shot to stardom.

His status was amplified further still, in Brazil, where he soon travelled to compete in the 2014 World Cup. He was at the heart of Costa Rica’s golden run to the quarter-finals, conceding just one goal in the group stage, against three former world champions in England, Italy and Uruguay, before going on to supply the heroics in a Round of 16 clash with Greece. There, he didn’t just make seven saves to keep a 10-man Costa Rica in the contest, but followed those with a vital penalty stop, in the shootout, to clear their passage to the tournament’s last eight. “I believe he is one of the best in the world,” Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto mused after the match. “He is the complete protagonist.”

A further seven saves against the Netherlands confirmed his standing on the world stage, and a steady stream of interest soon followed. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich were among the candidates, and it was the former who eventually met his release clause, of €10 million, to complete the purchase from Levante.

At that point in time, Navas appeared set to continue his progression. The position of Iker Casillas was weaker than it had been for much of his career in Madrid, but Carlo Ancelotti, the man in charge, stuck with the Spaniard. He gave him 32 league starts to Navas’ six, and although Casillas wasn’t overly impressive, he was favoured for starts in the Champions League as well.

In contrast to the previous season, Navas now found himself on the periphery. It wasn’t a place where he wanted to be, but it wasn’t one he was unfamiliar with, either. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had to warm up the bench,” he told Marca in March. “I know what I have to do in order to get the results I want, so I just try to keep learning. I feel privileged to be at Real Madrid and I work hard every day to show the club it was right to sign me.”

This, it seems, has been his go-to attitude throughout his career. Luis Llopis, his goalkeeping coach at Levante, spoke of his desire to improve. “He works very hard every day and always wants to get better.” When videos of Llopis training with Navas emerged online, his work ethic was immediately apparent. The “Falcon of Costa Rica” went through his various exercises with astounding intensity, diving for one ball then striving to stop another. The speed of his feet stood out, as too did his reflexes. Then there was his ability to recover, to get up and to go again.

These sessions accentuated attributes that were already strong for Navas, and turned him into a world-beater in La Liga. In a match against Barcelona, for example, Levante eventually claimed a point after Navas performed a stunning double-save to deny Lionel Messi. Against Sevilla, too, Navas made an outlandish save to rebuff Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian headed the ball from around 6 yards out, towards an ostensibly vacant far post, only to watch Navas dive low to his right, extend a hand and pull off the impossible.

On both occasions, he left everyone perplexed. Everyone but Llopis, perhaps. “Keylor is difficult to beat from distance, and is incredible in reaction shots,” he told El Pais. “His speed allows him to achieve double saves, and move around the goal swiftly.” Swift he certainly is, and when combined with his capacity to recover, it’s that which makes him one of the best pure shot-stoppers around. He may not be the tallest of keepers, which means he sometimes struggles when dealing with crosses, but by and large there are a few flaws in his game.

And with Casillas now on the books of FC Porto, there is an opening in the Spanish capital. The spot between the sticks is now up for grabs. David de Gea has been linked with it consistently, but so far Madrid have failed to negotiate a deal with Manchester United. Uncertainty surrounds a transfer that once seemed a certainty, and with Rafa Benitez admitting he doesn’t know what’s happening in relation to de Gea, the news is good for Navas.

Indeed, the Costa Rican has been handed the No. 1 jersey for next season, and even more importantly, he’s also received the backing of Benitez. When asked if he saw Navas as his starting goalkeeper, the Spaniard’s response was positive. “I think so, yes,” he said, following a pre-season win over Manchester City. “We wanted to give him the chance to play and prove himself, and he has done well.”

A lot still hinges on de Gea, of course, but as it stands Navas is the first man in line. He stepped up for Levante and now he will have to go up another level again, but upon signing for Los Blancos, he felt ready to do so. “I feel capable of taking on these challenges. My work is my foundation and when you work hard you feel ready to take on any kind of challenge,” he said. “I am very calm. What I have to do is train hard and be available to the technical staff and when I get my chance be ready for it.”

Right now, he appears to be on the verge of getting that chance. The stakes will be high and the fans unforgiving, but as a hard-working keeper with the reflexes to match, Navas will certainly be up for the challenge.