When the news broke that Paulo Gazzaniga was having a medical ahead of joining Fulham this weekend, a lot of fans’ first thoughts will have centred around Marek Rodak. The Slovakian international, who had an outstanding breakthrough season at Craven Cottage as the Whites were promoted from the Championship under Scott Parker, watched most of our doomed Premier League campaign from the bench after Alphonse Areola arrived on loan and the acquisition of another goalkeeper places his hold on the number one jersey under question again.
Rodak’s displays in the Championship shouldn’t have come as a surprise given his string of consistent performances with Rotherham on loan – and he definitely deserves another chance to establish himself in the Fulham goal. Rodak was arguably the division’s most consistent custodian in 2019/2020 – with only Nottingham Forest’s Brice Samba posting statistics to match. Gazzaniga has a fine pedigree as a back-up goalkeeper, having amassed significant top flight experience at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, but would he have signed on the dotted line just to be a number two?
Rodak’s resilience has been tested before. He had a nightmare start to his Fulham career, being sent off at Middlesbrough after being elevated to the first team following some error-strewn performances from Marcus Bettinelli, but bounced back strongly – never looking like relinquishing the shirt. He secured some vital wins in the promotion season, with a succession of fine saves grabbing a win in a tight contest at Swansea, and he bailed Fulham out at Pride Park with some excellent stop against a dominant Derby County. Rodak’s rise was rightly rewarded with international honours and it is intriguing to think about how he might progress under the tutelage of new goalkeeping coach Hugo Oliveira, who played a key part in the emergence of Jan Oblak.
Although frustrated at his lack of first-team football last year, Rodak admitted that he picked up a few useful tips from French World Cup winner Areola. It would be good to see another of Fulham’s academy prospects progress with Rodak’s rise from the FA Youth Cup final side in 2014 to one of the Championship’s strongest performers a source of considerable pride for Huw Jennings and the rest of the Motspur Park coaching staff. He may well learn more from Gazzaniga in training, but he’ll desperately want to be Marco Silva’s first choice.
The theory will be that an experienced Gazzaniga can help push Rodak to new heights. The big shot stopper should be well known to English audiences from his stints with Southampton and Spurs, but he actually shot to prominence during an eye-catching spell with Gillingham after a recommendation from Gary Penrice, who had recognised his potential when watching Valencia’s youth team. Gazzaniga didn’t stay at the Priestfield for long with some superb League Two displays – including a miraculous clean sheet against Oxford that is memorably recounted in Michael Calvin’s The Nowhere Men – seeing compatriot Mauricio Pochettino take him to Southampton in a move that the goalkeeper described as ‘a dream’.
He spent four years at St. Mary’s – largely used as back up to the likes of Kelvin Davis, Artur Boruc and Fraser Forster – but performed well on his rare Premier League outings and was reunited with Pochettino when the Argentine made the move to Tottenham after a successful loan spell with Rayo Vallecano, where he had made 32 appearances. Gazzaniga found it nigh on impossible to dislodge Hugo Floris but when the French captain sustained a serious injury, he seized his opportunity. Having starred against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions’ League a year earlier, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Gazzaniga commanded his goal impressively in both domestic and continental competition and plenty of Spurs fans felt he was unlucky to lose his place when Lloris returned from a lengthy injury lay-off.
Gazzaniga, who got a taste of first team football whilst helping Elche successfully battle against relegation from La Liga in the second half of last season, has already spoken about relishing the challenge with Fulham. That could be taken two ways – he will be up for trying to oust Rodak from the side as well as helping the Cottagers secure an immediate return to the top flight. As a tall, commanding and confident shot stopper, who is good on crosses, he certainly has the credentials to be a success in the Championship – and there is an element of doubt about whether Silva has brought him in to replace Fabri or with a view to installing him as the new number one. Whatever the manager’s intentions, it is clear that Fulham have two quality goalkeepers ahead of the start of the new Championship campaign and that can’t be sniffed at.