Courtois will silence his critics by winning the Champions League

PETE JENSON: Thibaut Courtois is STILL haunted by the 2014 Champions League final but he can lay those ghosts to rest in Paris… after a tough start at Real Madrid, Europe’s best keeper is now loved by fans and ready to silence his critics for good

  • Thibaut Courtois can silence his critics by finally winning the Champions League
  • The Belgian goalkeeper fell short with Atletico Madrid in the 2014 final in Lisbon
  • Sergio Ramos’ header for Real in that final has haunted Courtois ever since
  • Former Chelsea goalkeeper has always fallen short in the competition ever since
  • Now he can lay those ghosts to rest by lifting the trophy this Saturday in Paris 

Thibaut Courtois has laid a lot of ghosts during the last four years at Real Madrid but the biggest will fall on Saturday night if he picks up his first Champions League winners’ medal.

In that first season at the club he looked a little haunted by his recent past. He performed well at Chelsea and Atletico Madrid but neither set of supporters seemed to have any respect or enduring affection for him. 

They booed him at Stamford Bridge and they pelted him with toy rats at Atletico’s Metropolitano stadium. The worst of it was that his old fans didn’t like him and his new supporters didn’t think much of him either.

Thibaut Courtois can silence his most vocal critics by finally winning the Champions League

All that is behind him now. His worst critics at his old clubs would probably begrudgingly admit that he’s been the best keeper in this season’s Champions League.

And Real Madrid supporters idolise him because he has done as much as any of their outfield players to ensure they are in this weekend’s final.

And it’s Saturday’s final which gives him the opportunity to slay the last demon: the experience of his only Champions League final to date when he was seconds from finishing it as a winner only to be beaten by Sergio Ramos – a goal which forced injury time in which he was beaten three times more as Atletico lost 4-1.

He was asked in an interview late last year by Futbol Emotion: if you could take one trip back in time what would it be?

Serio Ramos scored with a header past Courtois in the 2014 Champions League final

Ramos’ goal has haunted Courtois and it’s a moment he’d change if he could turn back time

He didn’t need any time to think about his answer: ‘I would go back to the Lisbon final,’ he said. ‘And I’d stop Ramos’ header now that I know which way it is going.’

Champions League finals are hard to reach and harder to win. ‘It just wasn’t our day to win it,’ he has said after the game. 

The Atletico players in the dressing room felt the same way after the match. There was a pact made that they would be back sooner rather than later, says Courtois: ‘I knew for me that wasn’t going to be possible because I was returning from my loan, to Chelsea.’

Atletico did return with Jan Oblak in goal two years later. Courtois has not come close since. In 2015 he was knocked out at the quarter-final stage by PSG. It was the same story the following year. In 2018 there was another quarter-final exit, this time against Barcelona.

He was at Madrid the following year but the curse of the quarters struck twice again with Ajax and then Manchester City knocking them out in successive seasons. Last year he got to the semi-finals but it was his old club Chelsea who reached the final at Courtois’ expense.

Courtois shakes former UEFA president Michel Platini’s (left) hand after the 2014 final defeat

Not being able to get to Ramos’ injury-time header has stayed with him through all that time – how could it not with a picture of the moment on the dressing room wall put there to glorify the Madrid captain in one of his finest moments.

It was nice for Ramos to remember that night in Lisbon but not so great for Courtois.

It was never easy for Courtois at Madrid in the beginning. And Ramos was part of the reason. There was never any animosity but Ramos was big friends with Keylor Navas who was still at the club when Courtois arrived.

The Costa Rican was adored by all his team-mates but especially supported by captain Ramos who had never been entirely in agreement with the need to sign a new keeper.

The mental strength displayed by Courtois to thrive at Madrid, in those circumstances, and after a shaky first season and a half has impressed all.

Early in that first campaign he had conceded five in his first Clasico and Ramos had even liked an Instagram post from a Madrid fan that included criticism of the player signed from Chelsea for £35million that summer.

Courtois first arrived at Real Madrid and struggled alongside fan favourite Keylor Navas (right)

By the start of his second season Navas had moved to Paris Saint-Germain and Courtois was undisputed No 1 but he still did not look assured.

There were ‘Invisible Courtois’ headlines because of statistics that suggested every shot against Madrid was a goal.

And things came to a head in the group stages of the Champions League at the start of October 2019 when Madrid went 2-0 down before half-time to Club Brugge and Courtois was blamed for both goals and jeered by some supporters.

He did not emerge for the second half. There were mixed reports as to why, with some even claiming he had suffered a panic attack at half-time.

What happened in the Madrid dressing room was never entirely explained. It seems there was no bout of anxiety but there was perhaps a physical reaction to what had become an intolerable situation for him.

Courtois (left) and Sergio Ramos did not see eye to eye at the start of the Belgian’s Real career but managed to patch things up before the Spaniard left for PSG last summer

‘Thibaut had a bad stomach and a bad head,’ said substitute Alphonse Areola after the game, explaining why he came for the second period.

Courtois could have sunk without trace after that. But after sitting out the next league game, a match in which his replacement Areola made a mistake that led to Madrid conceding a penalty, he was soon back in the team and he has not stopped improving since.

‘They doubted him at first but I always thought it was a great signing,’ former Real Madrid keeper Agustin Rodriguez says. 

‘He fills the goal and yet he’s so agile. He’s quick with his feet and with his hands. And perhaps above all he has tremendous levels of concentration. I’m sure it’s something he honed playing for Atletico Madrid and Chelsea. And he feels important now. He has won the respect of everyone.’

Agustin was Real Madrid’s goalkeeper the last time Real Madrid played Liverpool in a European Cup final in 1981 in Paris. 

Forty one years later it’s the Belgian international who can help Madrid do what they were not able to do then and lift the trophy. 

It will be a fantastic ending to a superb season, and aged 30 Courtois will have reached the very summit of his career, silencing all his critics along the way.

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