Upon his arrival at Real Madrid from Chelsea in the summer window of 2018, Thibaut Courtois couldn’t help but face reminders of what he wasn’t. He wasn’t David de Gea, the goalkeeper the Spanish giants had spent years chasing, and he wasn’t Keylor Navas, the fans favourite who many took the side of when Real Madrid spent big to improve a position that didn’t really need improved.
This didn’t help Courtois settle at the Santiago Bernabeu, with the Belgian enduring a less than convincing first season in Spain. Every so often, Navas would come back into the Real Madrid team as a symbol of the uncertainty around the €35 million signing. When Navas left for Paris Saint-Germain the following summer, many claimed Real Madrid had sold the wrong goalkeeper.
Now, though, Courtois is a key figure for Los Blancos, underlined by his rock-solid performance in Sunday’s Madrid derby. Had it not been for the Belgian shot-stopper, Atletico Madrid would have been out of sight long before Karim Benzema snatched a point late on. Luis Suarez might well have had a hat trick.
In the context of his season so far, Courtois’ derby display was unremarkable, but only because Real Madrid have grown accustomed to the 28-year-old bailing them out. Zinedine Zidane’s side aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive resolve, but without the Belgian giant between the posts they would be even more vulnerable at the back.
Courtois wasn’t the only keeper to shine in Sunday’s Madrid derby, with Jan Oblak also pulling off a series of impressive saves. Just as Courtois engaged in something of an individual duel with Suarez, the Atletico Madrid goalkeeper made it his personal goal to thwart Benzema in everything he did.
While the quality of La Liga has been placed under the microscope this season, with Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Villarreal all toiling in continental competition, Spain is currently a hotbed of elite level goalkeeping talent. The country boasts more world class shot-stoppers that any other. Not even the Premier League can compare.
It’s not just Courtois and Oblak. It’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who has been one of Barcelona’s few consistent performers over the last few seasons, and Athletic Club’s Unai Simon, Spain’s current number one. Even at a lower level, there’s Granada’s Rui Silva, who has been linked with a summer move to the Premier League - Everton are reportedly interested in the 27-year-old.
But Courtois, valued at £67.5m by Transfermarkt, has a strong case to being the best of the bunch. At 6ft 6” tall, there is certainly no goalkeeper as physically imposing as the Belgian currently playing in La Liga. While opponents previously aimed to exploit this by aiming shots low, where Courtois used to struggle to reach, the 28-year-old has worked on his weaknesses.
Zidane’s decision to stand by Courtois in the early days of his Real Madrid has paid dividends, with the goalkeeper now considered one of the Frenchman’s core group. Dani Ceballos, Martin Odegaard and Luka Jovic will attest to how important it is to be a member of that group. Indeed, those who are not trusted by Zidane are quickly moved on. There’s no chance of Courtois leaving any time soon.
Real Madrid are on the brink of a generational transition. Renewal is required, with Benzema, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos all in their 30s, but Courtois is one player who could bridge the gap between this era and the next for the Spanish club. After years for looking for their next ‘Galactico’ goalkeeper, Courtois has grown into the role.