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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 27 February 2021

Spain turn to Unai Simon in carousel of keepers as faith in David de Gea appears to wane

Enrique picked Bilbao goalkeeper for Nations League draw with Switzerland, as United player finds position for club country under scrutiny

Unai Simon was 54 minutes into his competitive international debut when he suffered his rush of blood.

A long ball had been delivered from within the Switzerland half, and Simon deemed himself best placed to meet it. He sprinted 15 metres beyond the edge of the penalty area and promptly volleyed at thin air.

When a goalkeeper commits himself with such purpose to a long safari outside his territory, he needs to make it work. If not, the next few seconds look horribly undignified.

Simon dashed back, chasing the Swiss striker Haris Seferovic, the beneficiary of Simon’s mis-hit; Simon stumbled; Simon dived in vain to try to stop Seferovic’s shot. The young keeper owes Sergio Ramos – the Spain captain spared his further embarrassment by clearing on the goal-line.

On a confusing Saturday night in Basel, Ramos missed not one but two penalties, his first failures from the spot after his run of 25 successful spot-kicks for club and country.

The failure to build on a 1-1 draw means Spain must now beat Germany in Seville on Tuesday to top their Uefa Nations group and reach next year’s finals. But even after the drama of the skipper’s double flop from the spot, the choice of goalkeeper remained a principal talking point.

Simon made some alert, brave saves. Nobody had foreseen him starting only his second match for his country. The 23-year-old won his first cap last week against the Netherlands, but that was a friendly, an event designed for experimentation.

Enrique had until the weekend seemed firm in who he felt was his first-choice goalkeeper, chiding reporters only last month that “to criticise David De Gea is a very bad habit”.

It is, though, a widespread habit. De Gea, of Manchester United, finds his status at his club under as heavy scrutiny as it has been for most of his decade in England. His last 12 months were punctuated by a series of conspicuous errors, mostly of positioning.

He had an imperfect World Cup for Spain in 2018, too, although once Enrique took charge of the national team later that year he gave De Gea his firm support.

Spain's head coach Luis Enrique with goalkeeper Unai Simon after the Uefa Nations League match against Switzerland. EPA
Spain's head coach Luis Enrique with goalkeeper Unai Simon after the Uefa Nations League match against Switzerland. EPA

Under the current Spain manager, De Gea was picked for every competitive game he was available – until Saturday. During Enrique’s time away last year, when the coach’s young daughter was battling a terminal illness, the stand-in coach Robert Moreno often preferred Kepa Arrizabalaga, who, at 26, is four years De Gea’s junior.

Arrizabalaga was then the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, after his €80 million ($94.9m) transfer from Athletic Bilbao to Chelsea. He is still part of the Spain setup, but rarely has an elite keeper’s career fallen so far, so fast, and in such a public way.

Three clear errors in Chelsea’s opening five matches of the season hastened his replacement as his club’s first-choice by Edouard Mendy, signed from Rennes in the summer. “Not an ideal situation,” noted Enrique, before offering Arrizabalaga support and “a chance to rise again, with a starting place for Spain in last month’s 0-0 friendly draw with Portugal.

Since then, Arrizabalaga has remained on the bench, his main surprise only that De Gea, who was arguably at fault for the goal in Spain’s 1-0 defeat in Ukraine last month, was sitting nearby on Saturday.

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Gallery: Germany 3 Ukraine 1

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Simon’s promotion follows two seasons of progress since he took over at Athletic Bilbao from Arrizabalaga in 2019. He is experienced enough to know he is no more immune to error than his seniors. He made two mistakes in the last club match before his international debut, resulting in Bilbao losing 2-1 to Valladolid.

In all, four goalkeepers – the other is Paul Lopez of Roma – have started for Spain in the space of a year. “I have four or five excellent keepers,” insists Enrique. But he has seen something he likes in Simon, in his use of his feet, his confident passing.

After Simon’s mixed showing against the Swiss, Enrique left few clues about how far his trust in the promoted Simon extends. The next fixture, against a Germany led by the trend-setting modern passing, adventurous keeper Manuel Neuer, has a significant prize riding on it.

For his part, Neuer should become Germany’s most capped keeper in Sevilla tonight, a 96th appearance taking him past Sepp Maier, who played until 1979.

Neuer would welcome a first clean sheet in national colours for a year – five goals have gone past him in his last three matches for his country – and with it a guarantee of another slice of history, Germany’s first Nations League finals.

Updated: November 17, 2020 08:17 AM

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