Thibaut Courtois craves respect in England. Why that should bother Real Madrid’s telescopic-limbed goalkeeper is a mystery. The controversial manner of his exit from Chelsea five years ago has lit a fire of vengeance when he really should let things go.
Courtois has gone onto bigger and better things in Spain with a Champions League winners medal and he is now just two steps away from another.
Yet if he cannot put the past behind him, and is determined to show everyone over here how good he is and what we are missing, then there will never be a better opportunity than next month. Football fate has seen to it that Europe’s best keeper will come face-to-face with the continent’s and currently the world’s best striker in Erling Haaland.
Real Madrid’s Champions League two legged semi final against Manchester City spread across eight days in May is set to be a defining moment for both players.
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Haaland, 48-goals into a season already confirmed as immortal yet with two months still to play, bullying every defence that dare show its face - unstoppable.
The Norwegian beast has got the better of the biggest names in gloves since August alone. Among his victims: Argentina’s World Cup winner Emilio Martinez, Bayern Munich’s acclaimed Yann Sommer; a hat-trick against David de Gea.
Of all the highest-rated keepers, only Liverpool’s Alisson has safely steered his goal-line through an encounter with Haaland since he ignited world football with his move to City last summer from Borussia Dortmund.
If it’s respect Courtois wants so badly, he knows what he has to do.
Watching the oversize Belgian against Chelsea on Tuesday, it becomes clear that Courtois operates in an unnatural way. Too narrow for his 6ft 5in frame, he looks easily beatable on the deck and lacking the packed-in sinew of bulging calves to power off his line or spring into the air.
Yet a phenomenal save from Chelsea’s left back Marc Cucurella alone in the first half was enough to win widespread praise. First from beaten, pragmatic Chelsea manager Frank Lampard and then from a grateful Carlo Ancelotti, relieved that his keeper delivered yet again to push Madrid from the back into the semi finals for a record 16th time.
Courtois was voted Man of the Match for his performance last year in the Champions League final, denying Mo Salah when the Liverpool forward was at the height of his crafty, beguiling powers.
It was immediately after that Courtois revealed the innermost feelings which spur him on against English clubs. Real Madrid have just won their fifth consecutive knockout against Premier League sides.
He wants acknowledgement. A public nod that he is better than anything we have. That English football is a poorer place without him. Chelsea is for sure as he has not been adequately replaced even now.
If Courtois can get the better of Haaland the argument will be proved beyond doubt. Even if City emerge victorious in the semi final and go onto Istanbul at Madrid’s expense, Courtois must win his personal battle with the demi-God of finishing.
Golf had its ‘Duel In The Sun’, boxing the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’. There are some ex-players in football who think Haaland is much more George Foreman than Muhammad Ali. All unrefined muscle and sheer brute force minus the fancy footwork as he zones in on goal like a heavyweight unleashing the devastating right cross.
There is not much artistry to Haaland’s game but that doesn’t make it any less awesome or impressive. And there is no doubt he is the best there is in England at the moment.
According to respected football nerds’ bible FourFourTwo magazine, Alisson remains the best keeper in England despite the travails of Liverpool in an underwhelming season. If Courtois can keep Haaland at bay over 180 minutes that should be easily enough to satisfy his lust for recognition and could finally make him the best keeper in England - from Spain.