Ahead of the Back-Up Keeper Cup fifth round, Ian Watson rates the five finest stand-ins. What, no Bogdan?
5. Joel Robles (Everton)
The Spaniard’s status as back-up at Everton is somewhat unclear and his selection for this weekend’s FA Cup trip to Bournemouth does little to clear up the confusion.
Robles was selected ahead of the fit-again Tim Howard for last Saturday’s home defeat to West Brom, with many Evertonians delighted at Roberto Martinez’s choice. The sentiment towards Howard from the Gwladys Street has grown more bitter as the season has progressed, and T-Ho has not let his fading form stop him from giving a bit back. The USA keeper appears all set to return to MLS this summer and despite his long association with the club, there are many Toffees who would be happy to drive the keeper to the airport.
When Howard was injured, cup keeper and Premier League stand-in Robles was given his chance to stake a claim for the No.1 job. The 25-year-old kept clean sheets in consecutive 3-0 wins and Martinez kept faith with Robles last weekend, when Howard perched himself on the bench. The 36-year-old, though, may have had a little snigger into his snood when the Baggies stole victory when Robles “duly delivered a clanger every bit as bad as anything Howard has produced this season”.
Bit harsh, that. Still, Robles will get another chance to impress when the Toffees go to the south coast. The former Atletico Madrid keeper needs an extended run in a side – any side – after spending much of his early career on the bench.
He came through the Atletico ranks at the same time as David de Gea, and when De Gea left for Manchester United, Robles’ thunder was stolen by the arrival of Thibaut Courtois. Martinez clearly rates him, having given him the gloves ahead of Ali Al Habsi at Wigan, who won the FA Cup with the Spaniard in the sticks. With Howard seemingly on his way and little but the FA Cup to play for, Martinez will never have a better opportunity to give Robles a real chance.
4. Jordan Pickford
Big Sam surprised us all when he selected the 21-year-old ahead of Vito Mannone and Costel Pantilimon for the Premier League trip to Spurs a month ago. Rather less surprisingly, Pickford was hugely impressive, despite shipping four goals – all the responsibility of those in front of him.
Allardyce bottled it, though, and went back to Mannone the following week, but the Sunderland boss was comfortable with selling Pantilimon and promoting Pickford to No.2 and giving him a new contract to soften the blow of not playing.
If the Black Cats were not so deep in the relegation mire, Pickford would likely have kept his place. The England Under-21 international impressed during a loan spell at Preston during the first half of this season, with Aston Villa linked with a late move in January and Manchester City having had reports compiled about the young keeper.
Pickford has all the essential goalkeeping traits despite, at 6ft 1in, not being the giant that so many clubs want to block their goal. His distribution qualities and “rocket of a left foot” really stand out. The Washington-born stopper has served his goalkeeping apprenticeship on loan in the rough and tumble of non-league and the Football League, having made well over 100 appearances at Darlington, Alfreton, Burton, Carlisle, Bradford and North End. With Steve Harper now on the books at Sunderland partly to act as mentor, Pickford shouldn’t get too cosy on the bench as he is unlikely to still be there next season.
3. Asmir Begovic
Many questioned Begovic’s move to the Chelsea bench last summer and though the Bosnian has seen far more action than even he probably expected, already there is talk of him heading for thre Stamford Bridge exit only one year into a four-year contract.
Everton have been linked with a Begovic, who has been relegated back to the bench after a 12-game stretch in the Chelsea goal. The 28-year-old did little wrong during that run, keeping four clean sheets. That Chelsea lost five of those games on their way to getting Jose Mourinho sacked was in no part the responsibility of the former Portsmouth and Stoke stopper.
However, any prospects he had of a fair chance must have vanished when he found himself back on the bench as soon as Thibaut Courtois was fit enough to return. Despite Courtois’ standards slipping below those he has set over recent years, it is clear that only injury or catastrophe would see Begovic pull on the gloves.
Begovic’s form from two years ago was so good that he still remains highly thought of, despite a less-than-exemplary last year at Stoke. With almost no chance anytime soon of a Premier League winner’s medal to soothe the frustration of watching, the keeper would be well advised to look elsewhere for a No.1 gig. One year at Chelsea, with Champions League experience gained, can be seen as beneficial for his long-term prospects. Any longer than that and the opposite view grows with each passing matchday.
2. Rob Elliot
The former Charlton stopper looked finished at St James’ Park before the start of the season. Tim Krul was the firm No.1 and Karl Darlow had made a belated arrival from Nottingham Forest.
“Last summer I probably thought my career was over here,” Elliot told The Guardian at Christmas after a remarkable turn of fortune saw him go from third choice to Gallowgate favourite in less than half a season.
When Krul ruptured his cruciate ligament on international duty at the same time as Darlow was sidelined with an ankle injury in October, Elliot stepped in. Since then, the Republic of Ireland international has put himself forward as a leading contender (in a very small field, admittedly) for the club’s Player of the Season award while also furthering his Euro 2016 prospects.
Krul’s injury and the timing of it was seen as a hammer blow to Newcastle, but Elliot’s form means the Dutchman has not been missed. Despite their problems elsewhere, the Magpies are blessed with three fine keepers and another – Freddie Woodman – coming through the ranks. Should the day ever arrive when the quartet are fit then there isn’t room on Tyneside for all of them. Elliot’s form, though, means he can feel the most sure of a Newcastle future than any of his gloved colleagues.
1. David Ospina
The Colombian seems to have been very harshly judged at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s claim that his No.2 is “world class” might be slightly exaggerated but the manager is not far wrong.
Ospina has been acting as back-up only because of the outstanding quality of Petr Cech, who truly is world class. The former Chelsea keeper was recruited because it was too good an opportunity for Wenger to miss, not because Ospina wasn’t cutting it.
Ospina, signed from Nice for around £3million after the 2014 World Cup, took over from Wojciech Szczesny at the turn of last year and brought stability and calm to an erratic Arsenal defence. After his introduction, the Gunners went on a run of 11 wins in 12 Premier League matches, with Ospina keeping six clean sheets. He also led the way with a superb 81% save percentage.
Much of that fine work was immediately wiped from the memories of many fans and pundits when Ospina dropped a massive bollock in the Champions League against Olympiakos earlier this season. But Wenger retains faith in his No.2, even if he gives up five inches in height to Cech.
“I think he [Ospina] can be the goalkeeper of the future here as well. With Petr Cech getting [older] year after year, he may get more games.”
It is doubtful that Ospina, 27, will have the patience to sit around and wait for time to catch up with Cech. If he decides to seek regular action, there will be a sizeable queue of clubs willing to offer it.