The camera kept focusing on Iker Casillas, but his replacement took center stage. High in the stands at Saint-Denis, Spain's captain sat watching his countrymen play France, a broken finger having denied him the chance to make his 144th appearance; down on the pitch, Víctor Valdés was the man chosen in goal instead. Like Casillas, he was about to prove decisive. For some he was about to prove a discovery -- at the age of 31.
Spain traveled to Paris knowing that if it did not win it risked not making it to Brazil in 2014; the world champions, unable to defend their crown. Anything other than a victory, and they would be on pace for a World Cup qualifying playoff. As usual. when Spain is in a situation where the only way out is to win, it won 1-0 to take the group lead with five of eight matches played: few teams have proven as reliable as La Selección, the side which has won nine straight knockout games at major tournaments, all without conceding a goal. They did not concede here, either; thanks in no small part to Valdés.
This was an impressive Spanish performance, competitive and intelligent, and a handful of players stood out. Xabi Alonso's contribution was huge, especially in the first half, his 10- and 15-yard forward passing, vertical and precise, seeing Spain advance up the pitch in stages, overcoming early French pressure, stretching the game out to create space, easing the task of the center backs, and adding variety. Meanwhile, Nacho Monreal, in for the injured Jordi Alba, was impressive at left back, unexpectedly willing to attack, the provider of the night's only goal.
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And then there was Pedro, who scored it: his 10th goal in eight games for Spain, putting him just two behind David Villa as the man who scored the most in a season with the national team (12 in 2008-09). It was also Pedro who was brought down by French goalie Hugo Lloris for a penalty that was not given and who offered the greatest sense of danger. As for the goal, it was not just finished by Pedro, it was started by him, too: his pass found Monreal, and as it traveled toward the area so, too, at great speed, did him.
But by the end, much of the focus was on the other end. Rightly so. Valdés made a save one on one with Franck Ribery in the first half, when he dashed in behind Gerard Piqué and Álvaro Arbeloa, that was reminiscent of Iker Casillas's decisive stop against Arjen Robben in the World Cup final. And then, with three minutes left, he pushed away Patrice Evra's close-range header, reacting quickly to reach out a hand. It was a save that might just have confirmed Spain's place at the World Cup.
The Real Madrid-supporting AS columnist Tomás Roncero, whose byline picture shows him doing a V for Victory gesture, with one Spain flag held between his teeth and three others painted on his face, ended his post-match column with: "I will always leave a place in my memory for the super saves of Valdés. Thanks Víctor! Thanks Spain!" And the same paper's match report described Valdés as "miraculous, decisive." Marca called him "immense."
That might have been an exaggeration, but if neither save was truly jaw-dropping, they were both excellent stops. Above all, they were both decisive. They were also saves that drew a striking reaction: it was as if Valdés finally proved himself Tuesday night. As if outside his club, Barcelona, they were finally allowed to rate him.
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Valdés was playing only his 13th game for Spain. There had been no guarantee that he would start either in Paris or four days earlier in Gijón against Finland (a shocking 1-1 draw). Spain had him, Pepe Reina and David De Gea in the squad and, such has been the dominance of Casillas over the last decade, there was no clear pecking order. "Who will be the goalkeeper?" was one of the key questions on the agenda and it was a question that, until the night before the clash with last-place Finland, coach Vicente del Bosque was reluctant to answer. Not everyone had bet on the answer being Valdés.
Perhaps they should have done. This was the logical choice. Valdés may well have played more for Spain had he not had Casillas ahead of him, although there have been spells when both Andres Palop and Reina were above him, too, either occupying a squad place that he did not or in a hypothetical ranking within it. When a debate was launched about whether he should be called up to the squad for the 2010 World Cup, it was as third-choice goalkeeper.
Yet a case could even be made (and still can) for saying that he should have played more even with Casillas ahead of him: at club level, at least, he has been as good as, or arguably better than, his Real Madrid counterpart over the last couple years. Casillas, though, is the captain and standard bearer. Even those that campaigned for Valdés to go in 2010 and did so on the basis that he was not one of the best goalkeepers in Spain but that he was the best did not seriously expect him to replace the captain. Subsequent results in 2010 and 2012 vindicated that.
In Casillas' shadow it remained too easy to dismiss Valdés, especially for those who did not watch him often. Even in the buildup to this game there was a lingering sense among some that he just wasn't that good. They were wrong, and when the opportunity to play came around, there should have been few doubts.
Playing in goal for Barcelona is not easy: the keeper is expected to be another outfield player, able to (and obliged to) play with his feet, a policy that at times is risky and often exposes the goalkeeper. Barcelona's very style exposes him, too: there are relatively few saves to make, but those that there are tend to be very clear chances. But he has been a consistent performer, the winner of Spain's Zamora award (goalie with the best goals-against average) five times, more than anyone else in history. And he has made a habit of rescuing Barcelona at key moments -- perhaps never more than in the 2006 European Cup final.
Here he did it again. "As is his way on the big occasions," El País wrote. After the game, Andres Iniesta was the first to congratulate him. He put a photo of himself with Valdés on Twitter.
"Here I am with my brother," he wrote. "What great saves!" Asked what he made of his teammate's performance, he replied: "I am not surprised at all."
The real surprise is that so many others were.
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