Vicente Guaita exclusive: Crystal Palace goalkeeper ready to kick-start Premier League ascent against Leeds

“Where is my trophy? I want my trophy!”

It is the close of play on a Friday afternoon at Crystal Palace’s training base, and there is a competitive spirit filling the air.

Eberechi Eze, Michael Olise, Jordan Ayew and Jean-Philippe Mateta are partaking in a game of keepy-uppies when the ball drops and the ever-enthusiastic Eze takes the spoils.

As Eze enjoys his success, Vicente Guaita walks towards this writer with a front-row seat – and it is hard for the light-hearted moment not to draw an infectious grin.

Sunday 9th October 1:00pm

Kick off 2:00pm

The Spaniard has just been receiving some physio treatment – a regular routine ahead of Palace’s next Premier League encounter at home to Leeds United, live on Sky Sports this Sunday – and the player instantly looks at ease as he settles down on the bench alongside me.

This is a club with a rich history and philosophy of producing home-grown players with a hotbed of talent to choose from in south London.

Those who make the transition from Palace’s £20m state-of-the-art academy redevelopment a stone’s throw away on Copers Cope Road have the perfect surroundings in which to spread their wings – despite the Eagles’ current plight.

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Highlights from Chelsea’s win against Crystal Palace

Nestled in the autumn of a career that has spanned 16 years, Guaita is now Palace’s elder statesmen and a respected leader acting as mentor not only for those at the club but those closer to his Croydon home.

“I speak now with my children, as they are goalkeepers too and sometimes, I get angry because you really want them to be good!” he tells Sky Sports. “But the biggest advice I give them is to enjoy their football.

“Every day, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. You have to control your mentality. Sometimes, things don’t go well. It’s not good. I tell them to enjoy what’s around them, to enjoy the sport as that’s the most important thing.

“When I was younger, I put more pressure on myself to get better overnight and to understand things quicker, but as you get older you realise the time it takes and the control you need to learn your craft.

“My kids want to play goalkeeper! It’s difficult as I want them to be perfect, but perfect is very difficult. I know playing through enjoyment is still what matters the most. Sometimes, yes, there needs to be pressure, as sport is pressure. It’s important to instil early on the need to win games, but the balance has to be there.”

For Guaita – whose children are now aged eight, six and four – juggling a chaotic life with Premier League footballs in his adopted home is the trade-off that comes with professional sport.

At the start of his fifth season, his English is coming along with little need for my Spanish to assist him. It is Palace’s position, hovering surprisingly around the relegation zone – and keeping just a second clean sheet of the season – that is at the forefront of the 35-year-old’s mind.

Patrick Bamford could be fit to start for Leeds, giving Jesse Marsch an extra option with Luis Sinisterra serving a suspension following his red card against Aston Villa, but Guaita’s calm demeanour naturally leads to the subject of coaching once he decides to hang up his gloves.

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Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira discusses the Premier League’s decision that all clubs will kneel for the next two fixtures as they continue to fight against racism.

“It’s a big question and one right now that I don’t have the answer to,” he says. “A lot of people have already spoken to me about this, asking if I become a coach after I retire, but right now the focus is still on playing with Palace. Maybe I will, as I do like speaking with the younger players.

“I find myself telling the younger goalkeepers about controlling your position or saying that here, your position is better, this hand is better than the other hand. This comes with a lot of experience, games and years in my career.

“It was the same for me when I was a younger goalkeeper. I trained with Santiago Canizares and I learned a lot from him during the training sessions with him at Valencia.

“I was with him every day. When I started with the senior team, it was the season just after he retired so you want to pick up from him and maintain the same standards. As an academy goalkeeper at Valencia, I looked up to him as he made saves look so easy.

“I would look at how he made games look easy. Maybe now that I’m arriving towards the latter stage of my career, there are others who think I do the same!”

Wilfried Zaha celebrates his second goal with team-mates
Palace have registered just one league win this season

Palace have won just one of their seven matches so far this Premier League season and enter the weekend in 17th place, though they have a game in hand on a number of sides following back-to-back September postponements.

And they faced a tough test in the matches they did play, having already taken on Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea in their first seven contests.

“It’s been difficult as playing week after week, it makes creating a rhythm a lot easier,” accepts Guaita. “It’s been very different this season and we still have the World Cup to come.

“In September, we played just one game, which was very strange. Mostly training is geared towards the games and taking the points, but we had virtually a full month of just training mid-season.

Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha and Leeds' Robin Koch battle for the ball
Palace played out a goalless draw with Leeds in April

“For players, all you really want to do is play the games but the situation has been out of our control. We had a very different pre-season as well this time [several members of the Palace squad didn’t travel on the pre-season tour due to Covid restrictions].

“When I was younger, most pre-seasons would be spent in the same country – in my case Spain – where we’d play friendlies but train mainly at home.

“Nowadays, with football being watched all over the world, I can understand why we went to Australia as there are a lot of fans there who support Crystal Palace. This isn’t new, but it’s something we understood at the time.”

Guaita targeting 150 Premier League games

Joachim Andersen is mobbed after doubling Crystal Palace's lead against Man City
Joachim Andersen is expected to be back this weekend

Shedding any kind of nascent late-game hoodoo will be vital in a stretch that could see Palace pick up some points.

In the weeks before the World Cup, Palace will face a less gruelling onslaught of opponents, with a trip to Leicester on the schedule after hosting Leeds at Selhurst Park on Sunday.

Wolves will make the trip to south London before Palace meet Everton and Southampton, with the Eagles then visiting West Ham and Nottingham Forest before some of Patrick Vieira’s squad fly to Qatar.

For Guaita, the likelihood is that he will remain at the club’s Beckenham training base – despite retaining an ambition to represent Spain – but the former Getafe goalkeeper is prioritising another personal milestone alongside improving Palace’s own predicament.

“When I arrived here, all I was focusing on was getting into the team and playing in the Premier League,” he reflects, looking back to his first season back in 2018.

Guaita's shots faced map

“Once this was achieved, I wanted to reach 100 games in this league – I’d played a lot of games before in La Liga – but now the next target is to reach 150. 200? It’s difficult, but I want to stay here and reach this number.

“Of course, in football you never know and you have to always focus on maintaining a high level and the next game. In the Premier League, every day and every game is a high level. There are a lot of good players and good goalkeepers.”

Curiously, of Guaita’s 133 Palace appearances to date, only four have come in the domestic cups, where both Vieira and his predecessor, Roy Hodgson, preferred to deploy the understudy goalkeeper – but the man in possession of the No 1 jersey knows he cannot rest on his laurels.

Guaita’s current deal runs out next summer, and while club have the option of extending his contract by a further 12 months, the player knows he must continue to hit the same standards which earned him acclaim from players and supporters during the 2020/21 season, as the club’s player of the year.

Sam Johnstone was signed, like Guaita, on a free transfer during the summer but the former Manchester United and West Brom goalkeeper is yet to oust his team-mate for the No 1 spot. For Guaita, having a player of Johnstone’s qualities breathing down his neck can only be a good thing for Palace.

Sam Johnstone is providing competition for Guaita
Sam Johnstone is providing competition for Guaita

“It’s always good to have this competition – and that’s what we have across the team at Palace,” he says. “We now have Sam, Jack [Butland] and Joe [Whitworth] and Owen [Goodman] from the academy. All of us want to help Palace.

“This year, Sam is the new goalkeeper but when I arrived here, Wayne Hennessey was the No 1 and he was a big help for me. It was the same with Julian Speroni, who’d been here a lot of years.

“For me, it’s good to have this really good goalkeepers here with me as they help me in the same way I do them. It’s difficult as every goalkeeper wants to play, but my focus is on how I can help Palace and for all of us that is the most important thing.”

Playing out from the back and a mindset shift

Guaita's record for shots faced this season

There is a consistent sound of collective responsibility from Guaita as sharp as his peroxide-blonde hair, unmoved by the sudden breeze.

Controlling flyaways and ensuring maximum sleekness comes with the territory – and having spent his formative years watching Canizares at Valencia, Guaita is well-versed in the demands placed on the modern goalkeeper.

“Nowadays, we need to be able to do everything,” he says.

“Having control of the ball at your feet is part of those demands. It’s true that in the past, you had very little need to use your legs. There were big goalkeepers such as Canizares, Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes at Barcelona who played a lot with their feet even back then, but now pretty much every goalkeeper needs to be good with his feet.

Guaita is yet to make an error leading to a shot

“The most important skill is that the goalkeeper can make saves, but it’s now almost as big a requirement for us to play with our feet.”

Having that ability to play under pressure is easier when there is a settled back four in front of you, but Guaita believes whoever is chosen to play at the back has been drilled in what Vieira expects.

Nathaniel Clyne will be unavailable against Leeds after the full-back suffered an ankle injury in the 2-1 loss to Chelsea last weekend, while Sunday could see the return of defender Joachim Andersen.

“When you’ve got a squad of around 25 players, you may see the same two centre-backs and goalkeeper holding down the positions but everyone is important here,” says Guaita.

“It’s vital to understand what the manager wants from us. The manager wants us to play football in a certain way, so they’re ready when needed. Right now, it’s Marc [Guehi] and Joachim but even on the bench now we have good players who can really help the team.”

“I want a clean sheet every game but so far this season, we’ve found that to be very difficult. Every season is different.

Vicente Guaita is focused on adding to his clean sheets
Guaita is focused on adding to his clean sheets

“Last year was very good for us and for me with the clean sheets. It’s hard to predict what will happen, but of course the goal is to get more than the 12 clean sheets we achieved last season. The most important thing is still to pick up the points.

“Every season against Leeds is difficult. This is now their third year in the league, they’re a big team which has had unpredictable results, but in terms of their style, we know what to expect.”

Palace need a mindset shift if they want to stop conceding late goals in close games, says Vieira, and Guaita has all the experience to come through periods of adversity.

The Eagles have given up a critical second-half goal in two of their last three matches, both coming in the last two minutes of normal time and costing Palace points as they drew with Brentford and then lost to Chelsea in their last outing.

It has left Palace in the position of potentially dropping into the relegation zone if they suffer another poor result against Leeds on Sunday.

Guaita was speaking to Sky Sports' Ben Grounds
Guaita was speaking to Sky Sports’ Ben Grounds

Guaita ends: “There are always people on hand to help you during tough moments, and it’s hardest when you’ve just lost, conceded late or conceded a lot of goals.

“Liverpool scored seven against us a couple of seasons ago but it was from eight shots. With Chelsea last weekend, they scored twice from just three shots, so it was hard to take. But in football, there is always the next week.

“It’s hard to keep clean sheets and when you concede goals, there are times when the goalkeeper is blamed by defenders. It is the toughest part of the job, but the key is being able to control this and to clear your head, knowing there is another game that you can respond in.”

Guaita’s star has been in continual ascent despite the years passing by. It is his resolve – that intangible trophy – which must be sought from within to get Palace motoring again.

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Crystal Palace vs Leeds United
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