At the end of Tuesday’s session as Real Madrid began preparations for the Champions League final, a group of players gathered at one end of Valdebebas training ground and took turns rattling off shots, cheering the best and laughing at the worst. Standing in their way, also rotating, were three goalkeepers but Thibaut Courtois was not among them and maybe it was better that way. This is the man Carlo Ancelotti told to ease off in training for the good the team, joking: “I say to him: ‘You have to give our forwards more confidence because you always save every shot they take.’”
After Real Madrid’s first Champions League match this season, Courtois said: “It’s good for them to see that it’s not easy to score against me.” He at least was talking about the opponents and as usual he was right. It would also become a recurring theme. Internazionale had taken 14 shots in the first half and not scored. By full time the Belgian had made eight saves. Now he is up to 50.
To put that in context Alisson is on 14 and Ederson ended his European involvement with 15. Which is why Courtois, and Madrid, are still here eight months and 12 games later. It has been, Courtois says, “the nicest run you can have”.
The maddest too. Madrid’s journey has been inexplicable at times, much made of fortune and destiny, the magic of the Bernabéu, that something Real have, and Courtois says history and identity “definitely” play a part, for both teams. “You just have to see the home games against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City. You can see the moment we score, the reaction of the other team; they know what can happen.
“That is what makes Madrid so special, why it’s so amazing, why history talks so much about Real Madrid. All these comebacks, those special moments at the Bernabéu. You can only live that at Real Madrid.”
He knows; he has lived it from the other side: playing for Atlético in the 2014 Champions League final, the clock showed 92.48 when Sergio Ramos’s header beat him. “After losing a final I know what it means to win. Hopefully, I can have a lucky feeling this time.”
Only it’s not luck. Courtois joining Madrid has taken him to a second Champions League final but it has also taken them to their fifth in eight years, securing another one for Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Isco and Gareth Bale, opponents that day. Without him, none of this makes any sense. In this season’s competition he has stopped 77.8% of the shots he has faced, more than any other keeper and 26 percentage points higher than Liverpool’s Alisson.
In Paris, Courtois made eight saves, almost single-handedly keeping Kylian Mbappé out until the last minute and saving a penalty from Messi. Against Chelsea, he somehow stopped the Kai Havertz header that would have been Chelsea’s fourth; a minute later, Madrid scored. Against Manchester City, a stud on his boot prevented Jack Grealish from securing a place in the final. Chance? The next day he released footage of a training drill showing him make that same save over and over.
“But we have to do much more than just save,” Courtois says. As well as his decisive stops, Madrid’s recent European story is marked by opposition keepers making decisive errors when pressed by Karim Benzema. First there was Bayern’s Sven Ulreich, then Liverpool’s Loris Karius. This season PSG’s Gianluigi Donnarumma and Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy. He does not want Alisson to be next, aware the lines are fine and the risks higher than ever.
“It’s definitely harder now,” Courtois says. “If you go back 15 or 20 years it was really different to be a goalkeeper. Now you have to be a playmaker from the back, you have to come out as a libero to a ball in behind and run out and take it. They expect you to be calm on the ball and make decisive passes but you don’t have someone behind you that can save you.
“All teams expect that from a goalkeeper and you know that sometimes there can be a mistake and I hope it is not coming for me, or for Alisson. I don’t want to wish that on any goalkeeper.”
Courtois has faced Liverpool 10 times and lost once. “I had some fun games against them, in the League Cup semi-final and the Premier League. They were always nice games. I always enjoyed playing them. They’re a fun team to play, everything can happen against them. And they’re a really good side.
“The statistics are nice but it doesn’t mean anything. Against City, I didn’t win a lot and [then] we won the semi.”
Liverpool’s two finals this season, both against Courtois’s former club Chelsea, have ended in shootouts. A chance to be a hero again perhaps, maybe even to take one himself? “In pre-season with Chelsea against PSG I scored one and in the Community Shield against Arsenal I missed one,” he says. “[Antonio] Conte put me there because he knew I could shoot it well but standing on the spot in an important moment is different.”
Courtois laughs. “I wouldn’t be one of the first five, for sure,” he says. “But maybe after, if you need to shoot you have to shoot. I don’t fear it. It is a moment to shine. We won one against Atlético Madrid in the Super Cup two years ago when I saved one penalty and this season I’ve stopped three penalties.
“Against Chelsea, Liverpool have had two penalty shootouts and you study because you can see similarities between those shootouts. We will analyse it. Hopefully, it won’t come to that but I’ll be ready to make the right decision. You follow your feeling, where to dive.”