Iker Casillas' Porto revival has critics eating their words in 2016-17
It was deep into stoppage time in an intensely fought Portuguese Classico. A thumping header from Sporting centre-back Sebastian Coates sent the ball arrowing towards the bottom corner of Porto's net, seemingly earning Sporting a share of the spoils.
Iker Casillas, however, was not convinced.
Showing astonishing reflexes and agility belying his 35 years, the Spaniard produced a cat-like dive and at full stretch palmed away the ball.
Sporting coach Jorge Jesus brusquely spun to his bench, screaming his frustration, his head in his hands, in a gesture almost as dramatic as when famously slumping to his knees at the same venue three years ago, as Porto snatched the title from his Benfica side with a 92nd-minute goal.
Moments later the final whistle blew and an uncharacteristically magnanimous Jesus made a point of going onto the pitch and congratulating Casillas.
"I told Casillas it was he who had won the game," the Sporting coach told reporters afterwards. "He's a great goalkeeper."
It's a view even those who were initially sceptical have come to share. Despite his colossal achievements for Real Madrid and Spain, when Porto signed the goalkeeper in the summer of 2015, opinion was sharply divided as to the wisdom of the move. While some Portuguese media claimed Casillas was the biggest football star ever to grace the Primeira Liga, others argued he was past his best and had become a liability for Real Madrid.
Jose Mourinho, never one to shy away from giving a controversy-laced opinion, criticised Porto's decision and the "incredible salary" Casillas would be receiving.
The debate raged throughout his debut season for Porto. Casillas made mistakes, the ones in both Champions League matches against Dynamo Kiev in particular proving costly. But he also produced moments of magic, such as a super-human performance against Benfica in Lisbon. In a season and a half Casillas has had three different club coaches as Porto struggle to reassert their dominance of Portuguese football, but for Julen Lopetegui, Jose Peseiro and Nuno Espirito Santo he remained the undisputed No. 1. And the charismatic Spaniard has made his critics eat their words in 2016-17.
Porto have the best defence in Portugal, conceding just 11 goals in 20 matches, and in the Champions League only three times was Casillas beaten in the six group matches. The back four as a unit has been rock solid, and when opponents have managed to penetrate through it, Casillas has proven a formidable last line of defence.
Yet his positive influence goes beyond his displays on the pitch. Casillas brings a vital quality that is in short supply among Nuno's young team -- his experience as a winner.
The victory against Sporting temporarily put Porto top of the table, a position the club has spent precious little time occupying over the past three years. Most of Porto's players have never won a trophy. Forwards Diogo Jota and Andre Silva and midfielder Oliver Torres, ever-presents in the starting lineup this season, were aged 19, 20 and 21 years old respectively when the campaign kicked off. Striker Rui Pedro, who scored a stoppage-time winner against Braga last month, hadn't even been born when Casillas was first called up to the Real Madrid first team in November 1997!
More than deference to age, the small matter of a World Cup, two European Championships and three Champions League winners' medals explain why Casillas commands the utmost respect in the dressing room.
"I always loved Iker; he was my idol when I was a kid," said his understudy and Portugal U21 goalkeeper Jose Sa. "Playing with him is something special. I learn from him every day and I was surprised at how extremely humble he is."
His teammates are thrilled to play alongside him, and Casillas himself is evidently enjoying life in Porto, posting a steady stream of pictures illustrating his and his wife Sara Carbonero's admiration of their new environs on his phenomenally popular social media channels. Brushing off speculation that he could make a move to the United States, Casillas told Spanish radio channel Onda Cero: "I intend to stay at Porto for another season and I believe that's what the club wants too."
Should he maintain his current form, the end to Porto's trophy drought is not unfeasible, and a recall to the Spain national team, now managed by the man who brought him to Portugal, Julen Lopetegui, cannot be ruled out. Indeed, Lopetegui told Spanish radio show El Hormiguero on Monday: "The doors of the Spain team have not closed for Casillas."
Tom Kundert covers Portuguese football for ESPN FC. Twitter: @PortuGoal1.