Keylor Navas will be starting in goal for Real Madrid in the Champions League final this weekend, but he isn't even supposed to be.
Navas should be sulking somewhere in Manchester right now, lamenting United's fifth-place finish and failure to qualify for the very competition he will now instead have the chance to win. That's if Real Madrid had gotten their way ten months ago, anyway.
Real spent all of last summer trying to pry David De Gea out of Old Trafford and lure him back to Spain. With club legend Iker Casillas already shown the door, Real didn't want to go into the season with Navas as their first-choice goalkeeper, and they had already zeroed in on Spain's new national team No. 1.
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For whatever reason, however, it took until the eleventh hour for Real to finally strike a deal to send Navas to United in exchange for De Gea. Navas even signed his contract with the Premier League giants, but the transfer collapsed spectacularly after the La Liga office failed to receive the paperwork in time.
"I cried that night when I found out I was staying," Navas later revealed. "I didn't want to leave."
Real, who wanted him to leave, should now be thrilled he couldn't. Since that deadline day debacle, the Costa Rica international has done everything in his power to stay the Merengues' keeper.
Where others may have showed nerves, bitterness, or even resentment over almost getting pushed out of town, Navas simply put his head down and played better than ever. He's quietly turned into one of Real's most consistent and best performers, winning over teammates and fans alike by coming up with key saves time and again, sometimes spectacularly so.
Real Madrid field one of the best front threes of all time in Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. They possess some of the finest midfielders in the game, too. Real's defense, though, as good as it can be, too often simply isn't. From Sergio Ramos and Pepe to Marcelo and Danilo, Real's backline is always susceptible to mistakes, and Navas has had to bail them out on numerous occasions.
In an October derby against Saturday's final opponent Atletico Madrid, Navas first saved an Antoine Griezmann penalty caused by Ramos, then made another brilliant stop in injury time to help Real escape the Vicente Calderon with a point.
Later that month, Real went up against Celta Vigo and facing La Liga's hottest team on the road, Navas was a monster, saving four or five surefire goals as Real won, 3-1.
"Navas was the difference between the two teams," Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo admitted after the game.
Then there was April's 2-1 El Clasico victory at Barcelona, in which Navas made a save so utterly ridiculous, not even Lionel Messi could comprehend it. The stop ultimately proved vital in keeping alive Real's 12-game winning streak to close out the La Liga season.
Navas recorded thirteen clean sheets in La Liga, giving up just .82 goals per game -- the best single-season average for a Real Madrid goalkeeper in 20 years. Not even Casillas ever had a better campaign.
Navas' excellence carried over in Europe, where he recorded nine shutouts in ten games.
Through his remarkable consistency and leadership, Navas has earned the complete trust and admiration of his teammates. After Real made up a two-goal, first-leg deficit to edge Wolfsburg in the Champions League quarterfinals, Marca reported that Navas was the star in Real's locker room, earning praise not just for his usual dependability in goal.
"Keylor is a hell of a keeper," Ronaldo gushed after Navas, who studies all of his opponents' goalkeepers and their set-piece tendencies, had sprinted 60 yards upfield to advise him on exactly how to take what turned out to be the tie-winning free kick.
The Bernabeu's notoriously fickle fans, too, have fallen in love with "San Keylor." In a March poll published by AS, a whopping 79% of Real fans preferred Navas to stay beyond this season.
Alas, the only man Navas still hasn't been able to convince just happens to be the club president, Florentino Perez. The same Perez who over the years has earned a reputation for letting club favorites leave in order to sign a flashy name or two.
In his first stint as club president, Perez once bizarrely replaced Claude Makelele, one of the world's best defensive midfielders at the time, with the glitzy David Beckham, despite him never having played that position before. Seven years into Perez's second spell, key performers like Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso were all let go to make room for the next wave of "Galacticos" like Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.
Navas could become the next victim. Perez is still a huge admirer of De Gea, and ever since last summer's debacle he repeatedly claimed that he "owes it to De Gea" to bring him back to Spain and the Bernabeu, the 25-year-old's self-proclaimed dream move.
De Gea is good-looking, charming and four years younger than Navas. He figures to be Spain's national goalkeeper for years to come, and is certainly more marketable than his Costa Rican counterpart. Those things are all true. De Gea checks all the boxes to be a starting goalkeeper for Real Madrid. But there are more arguments for why Perez should go against his instincts.
First, Perez would need to meet a whopping €40 million buyout clause to sign De Gea before June 15, after which United are free to set whatever price tag they want. De Gea is without a doubt a great goalkeeper, but he's not €40 million better than Navas.
Secondly, whereas the Old Trafford brass didn't have much leverage last summer, when De Gea's original deal was set to expire this June 1, they certainly do now. Just ten days after the Real transfer fell through, De Gea signed a new four-year deal with Unite. And with Jose Mourinho expected to take over for Louis van Gaal, De Gea will be able to play for a top manager who also happens to be represented by his agent, Jorge Mendes.
Most importantly, though, Real have bigger issues to address this summer. Their already shaky defense is aging. They still need a second natural defensive midfielder to spell Casemiro. They also desperately need more depth behind Real's three-pronged attack of Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema. Goalkeeper is the last position of need for Madrid. Navas hasn't just proven to be good enough; he's led them to another Champions League final. What more could De Gea possibly offer them that Navas can't?
Whether Perez comes to that same conclusion is ultimately the big question, but if there's any justice in this world, Navas should remain the answer.