It’s the last game of the season in the 2012/2013 La Liga season and Sevilla are at home against Valencia. It couldn’t be a more fitting fixture for Andrés Palop to bid farewell to his club, Sevilla. At the age of 39, many would expect a goalkeeper to call it a day and retire. However, as Palop was given a parting ceremony on the pitch with Sevilla’s president, directors, players and coaches, and with the whole crowd chanting his name, the Valencian goalkeeper was not saying farewell to football… just to Spanish football. It was then he announced that he will be playing the 2013/2014 season in the Bundesliga, at Bayer Leverkusen.
The deal had been in place for some time and Leverkusen had found the replacement to the departing Michael Rensing in Palop. At 39 years old, it’s not unheard for a goalkeeper to play at that age, but there is no denying that the announcement surprised a fair few. Bernd Leno’s new understudy could be labelled rather as a teacher than as a backup. For those Bayer Leverkusen fans to whom Palop is just a name, here’s a look back to his successful career in Spain.
Villarreal’s Hero and Valencia’s #2
Andrés Palop (L’Alcúdia, 1973) began his career at Valencia, but was loaned out for two seasons to Villarreal in 1997. Villarreal won promotion from the Spanish second division in 1997 for the first time in their history and Palop was one of the main reasons as to why they achieved promotion. Their first season in La Liga narrowly ended in relegation, but will be forever remembered for their 1-3 victory at Camp Nou against Barcelona, in which Palop excelled and made a name for himself for the first time, making stunning and crucial saves to give El Submarino Amarillo all three points in a memorable night for this then-small club.
After his excellent performances for Villarreal, Valencia recalled Palop for their first-team squad for the 99/00 season as an understudy to their #1 Santiago Cañizares. Valencia were on the rise with Argentine manager Héctor Cúper picking up after Atlético Madrid-bound Claudio Ranieri and when Cañizares picked up an injury in a Champions League match against PSV Eindhoven, Palop was ready to deputise. His run in the first-team lasted 15 league matches and 7 Champions League matches, which contributed to Valencia reaching the Champions League final (losing 3-0 to Real Madrid) and 3rd in the league.
Palop deputised for Cañizares until 2005, picking up another Champions League runners-up medal (after losing the 2001 final to Bayern München on penalties), 2 Spanish League titles (2002, 2004), 1 UEFA Cup winners medal (vs Olympique Marseille) and 1 UEFA Super Cup winners medal (vs Porto) albeit playing only a handful of games throughout all those years.
Sevilla, Time for a Change and Glory
In August 2005, Palop was signed up by Sevilla as their starting goalkeeper. Juande Ramos was Sevilla’s new manager and picked up an excellent squad moulded by the great Joaquín Caparrós with players such as Dani Alves, Adriano, Jesús Navas, Frédéric Kanouté and Luis Fabiano along the Spanish hardmen Pablo Alfaro and Javi Navarro, who, violently at times, marshalled the defence to good effect. All he needed was a quality goalkeeper to complete his squad and Palop was his man. If Palop’s winning medals at Valencia were tainted by the fact that he was a reserve goalkeeper, his early years at Sevilla were to surpass all expectations and added to his trophy cabinet to extents no-one thought possible. In the space of 15 months, Palop and Sevilla won 5 trophies (2 UEFA Cups, 2 UEFA Super Cups, 1 Spanish Cup), which took the club to the #1 spot in the IFFHS top world clubs list. The 2006 UEFA Cup victory against Middlesbrough (4-0) was only a prelude for the same competition the following year. Palop once again made a name for himself. In the last 16, Sevilla came up against Shakhtar Donetsk and after a 2-2 home draw, it was all to play for in Ukraine. Shakhtar were 2-1 up going into the 93rd minute as Sevilla got a corner. Dani Alves whipped the corner in and Palop rose above the Ukrainian defence to send the match into extra time. Sevilla’s delirium was transferred into extra time and they ended up winning 2-3.
After beating Tottenham Hotspur and Osasuna in the following rounds, Sevilla reached the final, which pitched the Andalusian club against Espanyol. The game was a 2-2 draw, with Palop making incredible saves throughout the 120 minutes to keep his side in the match, and the tie inevitably went to penalties. Once again, Palop was the hero as he saved three of the four Espanyol penalties and the title returned to the Sánchez Pizjuán stadium for the second consecutive year.
For the following three seasons, Palop was the undisputed #1 goalkeeper in Sevilla and they did not drop out of the top 5 positions in the league. Another Spanish Cup win in 2010 against Atlético Madrid was added to his honours list but injuries started to catch up with him the following season. For the next two seasons, Sevilla struggled in Palop’s absence and their league form dropped considerably, falling out of the European places altogether. Without who the fans called the Guardian of Nervión (the river that goes through Seville), their team was at a loss without their hero, who had by then achieved legendary status in the white side of the southern Spanish city.
2012-2013, from Andalusia to Nordrhein-Westphalen
For those fans who by now are thinking that Palop is crocked and finished, think again. Last season, Sevilla’s two goalkeepers starting the season were Palop and a certain Diego López. Due to Palop’s excellent form in the legue before Christmas despite the team’s poor league position, López had to be content with a place on the bench until January, when he signed for Real Madrid to become their #1 ahead of Spain’s starting goalkeeper Iker Casillas, due to his ongoing feud with manager José Mourinho. Changes also took place on Sevilla’s bench, with the manager Míchel being replaced by Unai Emery, who brought in Beto from Sporting Braga and inexplicably slotted him straight into the starting goalkeeping position ahead of Palop, with the Portuguese playing most games until the end of the season which lead to a disappointing 9th place. Palop, as mentioned before, managed to play a handful of games in the new year when the erratic Beto was injured but his contract was not renewed and now he seeks a new adventure in the fastest rising league in Europe.
I am still fit enough to play. I am going to Leverkusen and while I still have this same passion and desire, I will try and go as far as possible in my career. – Andrés Palop
What Leverkusen Fans Can Expect from Palop
First and foremost, Palop’s arrival is excellent news for Bernd Leno. Whilst being one of Germany’s most exciting young goalkeepers, Leno still has plenty to learn and the Champions League big stage shook him seriously, as seen in the tie against FC Barcelona when he conceded ten goals in two matches which lead to a huge drop in confidence in the following games in the Bundesliga. Palop will be able to pass on his experience to Leno, as he’s been a goalkeeper at the highest possible stage, and his influence should be of great gain to Leverkusen’s #1. On the other hand, if Palop was to step in due to injury or suspension to Leno, he’s an excellent shot-stopper with fantastic reflexes, as well as being a good commander of his area and having precise positioning and, of course, an expert penalty-saver. All in all, Palop’s signing for Leverkusen might be a masterstroke, as his unseen impact off the pitch and potential impact on the pitch could benefit Leverkusen in the short and long term.