Thibaut Courtois, the Abramovich employee who frustrated Chelsea

The other time that Thibaut Courtois was preparing to play against Chelsea in a Champions League semi-final, there was also a threat that he would not be able to do so. Then it was deactivated by UEFA, the same body whose president, Aleksander Ceferin, has slipped it without legal basis this time, after the fleeting rebellion of the Superliga: “There is a relatively small possibility that this match will not be held,” said the agent last week. In 2014, the threat came from Chelsea, the club to which he belonged and which had him on loan to Atlético, to which he claimed about three million euros for each game he played against them.

Actually, the rojiblancos had seen it first. Ten years ago, when Courtois was about to turn 19 and win the Belgian league as Genk’s starting goalkeeper, they looked to him to replace David de Gea, who had recently been sold to Manchester United. However, it was too expensive: almost nine million. Then Christophe Lollichon, Chelsea’s goalkeeper coach, became interested, who saw in him the successor of Petr Cech. But Cech was still sane and Courtois, now an absolute international, and who had made his debut in the Genk first team at 16, did not want to wait on the bench for a legend to be consumed.

In the middle of the blocking, the Belgian’s agent, Christophe Henrotay, found a way out: Chelsea put in the money and Atlético put in the minutes on the field. The plan was summed up by Courtois: “So I can calmly work on my development,” he said in July 2011.

When he arrived on loan to Calderón, Simeone immediately entrusted him with the goal, although doing so entailed two complications. One was told by the Belgian years later: “The substitutes didn’t always speak to me. It wasn’t jealousy; rather frustration ”. Another was related to EL PAÍS Pablo Vercellone, the rojiblanco goalkeeper coach: “Thibaut already had many conditions, but he was only 19 years old. It was about hiding his age, making him play like a 30-year-old goalkeeper and for that he had to work a lot on the basics, an ABC of position: clearances, blocks, fly outs and serves ”.

It worked. Atlético won the Europa League that season, and Courtois’ loan was extended for another year. Shortly after, on August 31, 2012, the rojiblancos snatched Chelsea, winner of the Champions League, the European Super Cup (1-4), with a triplet from Falcao to Cech. There were two more loan seasons at Atlético, in which the Belgian was Zamora de la Liga. Before the last one, Chelsea, which failed to attract him to London, introduced into the agreement the clause that was intended to prevent him from facing them again. When in April 2014 chance crossed them in a Champions semi-final, they tried to activate it, but UEFA declared it “null, invalid and unenforceable”.

They tied in the first leg at the Calderón (0-0), and in the return leg the Belgian despaired of the Chelsea footballers: he stopped a head-to-close-range shot from Terry and kicked out a shot from Eden Hazard in which they found themselves alone face to face in the area. Simeone’s team reached the final (1-3) and the Athletes present at Stamford Bridge said goodbye to the stadium singing: “Courtois, Courtois!” It was his penultimate match on loan at Atlético.

Mourinho claimed his play-off, despite Cech still holding. For the Belgian, the beginning was not easy at all, as when he landed at Real Madrid and Keylor Navas, the goalkeeper of the three Champions League in a row, was still there. “He needs to feel that the confidence of his club and the coach is total,” says a source close to him. When that happened and Cech was definitely bypassed, Courtois flowed again: they won the Premier and the League Cup. And then another Premier and an English Cup. Until in March 2018 the Belgian went to see Marina Granovskaia, general manager of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. “I told him I wanted to go. Living in London and the Premier schedule made it impossible for me to see my children regularly [Adriana y Nicolás], who lived in Madrid, “he said in an interview on HLN. He always kept a house in the capital.

After the World Cup in Russia, on the last market day, Granovskaia agreed to sell him to Madrid, after hiring Kepa, who had been close to the Bernabéu, but whose hiring was stopped by Zidane in winter. In his first course in white —post Zidane, post Cristiano, still with Keylor— he registered his worst numbers in Spain, with 65.4% of stops.

The next, without the Costa Rican, he signed his best campaign: 79.2% of stops according to Opta, the Zamora trophy and the Coronavirus League. The current one is leaving its second best course: with 76.9% of stops and a trail of interventions that support the team in decisive moments. Like at the beginning of the quarter-round at Anfield, when he kicked off a face-to-face shot from Salah, who was later stopped by another very similar one. Or in the League, where he has stopped 19 of the last 20 shots he has received.

This Tuesday at Di Stéfano Abramovich he will see the guy who frustrated them so much despite having him on the payroll. The oldest photograph of Courtois hanging in Valdebebas is one in which he stretches, without reaching, Ramos’ header in the 93rd minute in Lisbon, the final that Courtois denied to Chelsea.

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