The Two European Title Races Putting Goalkeepers Centre Stage

By Danny Lewis

News • Apr 8, 2024

The Two European Title Races Putting Goalkeepers Centre Stage

From relative obscurity, European title races have thrust several goalkeepers into the top of the table spotlight…

Spanish club Girona have spent most of this season firmly in the spotlight, and rightly so. 

The Catalonian club are playing just their fourth-ever season in La Liga but are among their top clubs, having unfathomably mounted a title charge.

It would take a monumental push perhaps even too much for Michel Sanchez’s underdogs if they are to win the league title, with the team sitting eight points behind leaders Real Madrid at the time of writing, but a Champions League place remains in their hands.

While some will reference their links to City Football Group as a factor that ruins any fairy tale nature of this story, they are still pulling off a monumental achievement with various players possessing no experience of consistently playing at these heights of a top-five league.

Among those stories is Aleix Garcia’s nomadic career before the midfielder landed at Girona, Ivan Martin having more La Liga starts this term than the rest of his career combined, Savio playing his first campaign in a top five league, while Artem Dovbyk and Viktor Tsygankov hadn’t played domestic football outside of Ukraine before joining the Blanquivermells.

Their goalkeeper, Paulo Gazzaniga, is another member of the squad who is stepping onto this sort of ground for the first time, being thrust from obscurity into one of Europe’s brightest spotlights.

He joined Valencia’s academy as a 15-year-old in 2007 but was released four years later without making a first-team appearance, subsequently joining League Two side Gillingham. The Argentine would only stay at Priestfield Stadium for a year before moving to newly-promoted club Southampton to embark on a Premier League career that would mainly see him used as a number two.

Only 23 appearances were afforded to him over five years with Southampton. He then tallied up 38 games for Tottenham Hotspur due to injuries suffered by Hugo Lloris. Over the seasons were loans to then-La Liga 2 sides Rayo Vallecano and Elche, where he made eight La Liga appearances.

His final stop before a loan and then permanent move to Girona was Fulham. While many Cottagers will have fond memories of a campaign in which they topped the Championship table to return to the Premier League, Gazzaniga will likely have mixed memories.

He started their first 11 league matches before being dropped for Marek Rodak following a 4-1 defeat against Coventry City, only going on to play two more Championship games that term – one of which was a 4-0 defeat against Sheffield United with the league title wrapped up.

Having not even been on the bench for the Cottagers’ first five games in the Premier League, with Rodak and Bernd Leno ahead of him in the pecking order, Gazzaniga made his initial loan to Girona.

Some patience was also required there, as Juan Carlos initially stayed between the sticks. Gazzaniga eventually got his chance following a 3-2 defeat against Almeria in which Carlos had a mix-up with Bernardo Espinoza and was beaten by an audacious free-kick from Adrian Embarba.

The Argentine’s second La Liga match for the club came at the Santiago Bernabeu, providing an opportunity to claim the number one spot that was most certainly taken. While he was eventually beaten by Vinicius Junior in a 1-1 draw, Gazzaniga made an eye-catching save to deny Marco Asensio, plus two more to ensure Rodrygo didn’t get on the scoresheet and Girona earned a point.

It was a solid yet unspectacular campaign for club and player, as Girona finished 10th in La Liga and Gazzaniga ended the season with four clean sheets to his name. That was still rewarded with a permanent move to the Estadi Montilivi ahead of a season that would certainly be spectacular.

While players further up the pitch will be the topic of more headlines and plaudits, Gazzaniga has certainly played his part in their success by keeping 10 clean sheets so far this term. That contribution was recognised by the club on Valentine’s Day, when their love affair was extended with a contract that runs until 2027.


France’s new Champions League contenders might not be as high-profile as Girona, but Stade Brestois 29’s level of success this term has been just as surprising. They are currently only being bettered by Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1, with their previous best top-tier finish being eighth in the 1986/87 campaign. In addition, their highest finish since earning promotion from Ligue 2 in 2019 had been 11th place.

Like the Blanquivermells, Brest have another goalkeeper that has never had this experience at such a high level in domestic club football in Marco Bizot. The Dutchman left it relatively late to find a move to a top five league, joining Brest at 30 years old. Before that, he had spent his entire career in the Netherlands and Belgium without winning any silverware.

Even so, he was highly regarded and did come close to topping the Eredivisie, as his AZ Alkmaar side was only behind Ajax on goal difference when the campaign was brought to a premature end due to coronavirus.

“When I arrived in France, I wanted to raise my game. The level in the Netherlands isn't as good,” he admitted to Ouest-France in September 2022. “I wanted to develop by playing against better teams and better players.”

Neither he nor Gazzaniga have much international experience either. Gazzaniga’s only Argentina appearance came in the form of a friendly against Mexico in 2018, while Bizot’s sole Netherlands match saw him face Spain during a friendly in 2020. The latter received his first call-up since 2021 in March, even if he didn’t make it onto the pitch.

That call-up is well-earned and a sign of those improvements, with Bizot having kept 11 league clean sheets this term, a tally that is only being beaten by Lens’ Brice Samba, Lille’s Lucas Chevalier and Nice’s Marcin Bulka. In addition, Brest have conceded fewer goals than anybody else in the league.

This is already an improvement on Bizot’s previous campaigns in France, in which he kept seven and eight clean sheets respectively. It also vindicates Brest’s decision to bring the Dutchman into the club for him to replace the much-loved goalkeeper Gautier Larsonneur and their wider transfer policy.

In a league that is so highly regarded for developing young talent and moving players on, Brest’s success this term has largely come as a product of entrusting players who are further on in their careers that they can keep for extended periods.

While there are of course younger players such as Lilian Brassier and Bradley Locko making their mark, Kenny Lala, 32, Pierre Lees-Melou, 30, Brendan Chardonnet, 29, and Romain Del Castillo, 28, have all made important contributions to the campaign, as has Bizot at 33.

Another notable goalkeeper pushing for new heights is Finn Dahmen, who had progressed through Mainz’s academy to reach their first team – helping Germany’s U21s to European Championship glory along the way - but was never appointed as their number one.

Now 26 years old, this summer he joined an Augsburg side that finished last term one point above the Bundesliga’s relegation play-off place, yet now sits one place away from what would be their second-ever qualification for a European competition.

Girona, Brest and Augsburg have all shown the importance of scouting the correct players and that signing big names isn’t the only way to reach the higher echelons of top five leagues, a value that has extended to bringing in their goalkeepers.

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