‘There is something magic going on’: The Argentinian goalkeeper with two hands of god
Unfurled onto the terraces at every home game of AEL is a banner which reads: ‘Las Manos de Dios’ – The Hands of God. As much as I would love to see it, (and it would certainly add some colour to this article) no Diego Maradona has not donned his car salesman suit, put a watch on each hand and made a comeback at the home of the Cypriot champions.
The banner pays homage to his considerably lesser-known compatriot who goes by the name of Matias Degra.
As an Argentinian who put his hands to good effect (depending from which side you are looking at it of course), you would however certainly expect El Diego to appreciate the feats of his countryman.
Degra, the 29-year-old goalkeeper from Cordoba, is making a name for himself in the Cypriot game – and now in Europe – as the man who cannot be beaten from the penalty spot.
In fact, he now boasts an impressive record of not having conceded in the last eight penalties he has faced, saving six while two have been missed by the opposition.
The Argentinian began his European journey at Atletico Madrid in 2007, but his stint in Spain did not last long. Having played just once for the Madrid outfit in his one season at the club, Degra moved to Greece and had spells at two lesser known Greek clubs, Veria and Asteras Tripolis.
Signed by AEL last summer, Degra played an integral part in the club’s historic title win last season, the 6th in their history but first in 44 long and painful years (ring a bell there?).
A side that powered its way to the Cypriot title last season, AEL’s success was built on a strong and impenetrable defence. The Limassol side conceded just 10 goals in the whole of last season, keeping 25 clean sheets from 32 league matches. The number of times that Degra came to AEL’s rescue were countless – as equally as impressive as his interventions from the penalty spot.
But Degra does not save just any penalties. More often than not he works his magic when it really matters. Last season, he denied rival title challengers APOEL and Anorthosis Famagusta (twice), while also– to add to his cult figure status among the fans – Apollon in the Limassol derby.
So great is the side’s belief in Degra that even when he himself gets it wrong, he still receives credit.
In AEL’s first Europa League game of Group C against Borussia Monchengladbach two weeks ago, the crowd held its breath as the referee pointed to the spot in the 96th minute to give the German side a chance to win the game from 11 metres.
Degra, who had twice received treatment during the game, dived to his left, only for Oscar Wendt to blast his penalty onto the crossbar, ensuring a battling AEL performance was rewarded with a point.
But even then, it was all about Degra. ‘Unbeatable’ read the headline in one of the island’s sports papers, ‘Degra’s 8th miracle’ read another. Players and management alike united in their view that the goalkeeper must have some sort of supernatural ability when opposition players put the ball on the spot.
“It would have been unfair had the penalty gone in. Degra worked his magic once again and justice was upheld,” said AEL chairman Andreas Sophocleous after the game.
“I do believe there is something magic going on. He is certainly an excellent goalkeeper with immense quality but now whenever the opposition wins a penalty we firmly believe he will save it. This is something very special, inexplicable really,” said Brazilian midfielder Bebe.
But for a team that had never won a European tie before this season, they have needed more than a special goalkeeper to make it where they are so far.
A strong, organised unit with seemingly unflagging levels of energy and ability to outmuscle and outrun the opposition at any stage of a game, AEL brushed aside Linfield in the first of their Champions League qualifiers, beat Partizan Belgrade 2-0 on aggregate and were just nine minutes away from an unlikely place in the Champions League group stages before succumbing to Belgian champions Anderlecht.
However, while the Europa League may be an unnecessary distraction for many of Europe’s bigger clubs (see. Mickey Mouse cup), for a club with an annual budget of 3-4 million euros, this is the greatest achievement in their history.
It may not be Manchester, Madrid, Munich or Paris on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but Marseille, Monchengladbach and Istanbul on a Thursday night will do just fine for a club whose last European experience came in the form of a 5-2 aggregate thrashing at the hands of Hungarian side Ferencvaros in the first qualifying round of the Uefa Cup in 2002.
As Degra and co now prepare to face a Marseille side that have enjoyed their best ever start to Ligue 1 later today, they know that they will probably need to count on their goalkeeper’s magic one way or another if they are to have any chance.
One thing is certain though. He has had plenty of practice so far.
Follow Nassos Stylianou on Twitter @nassos_Tagged in: Champions League, Europa League, football
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