It was Valencia’s fifth penalty of the shootout and Real Madrid were one step away from the Supercopa de Espana final after a 1-1 draw following extra time. Carlo Ancelotti’s side had scored their four penalties while Valencia had missed one, so their captain Jose Gaya had to convert his effort to keep his side’s hopes alive. Once again, the imposing figure of Thibaut Courtois proved decisive.
At 6ft 7in (or a touch over 200cm), Real’s goalkeeper hardly had to move from the centre of the goal. He held his nerve, dived to his right and turned Gaya’s shot away with his legs, leaving the Valencia left-back to rue his misfortune. Madrid’s players, meanwhile, jogged over to embrace Courtois — they have become used to these kinds of performances from the Belgium international who, little by little, has turned into one of the cornerstones of Ancelotti’s team.
Nearly eight months have passed since the Champions League final in Paris, when Courtois put in a man-of-the-match performance to help Madrid beat Liverpool. He has returned to that level after a downturn in form and a disappointing World Cup in which he was dumped out with Belgium at the group stage — and where he was recovering from a back injury that meant he was accompanied by a physiotherapist he trusts from the club.
“After the World Cup, I recovered from all my problems and now I’m at my full capacity,” Courtois said after the Supercopa semi-final against Valencia.
He is not wrong. Against Real Valladolid in La Liga, he produced a brilliant left-handed stop from a corner to keep the score at 0-0 before Madrid wrapped up a 2-0 win. Against Villarreal, he stood firm in a one-on-one with Yeremi Pino and was arguably the only player who emerged with credit from the eventual 2-1 defeat.
That continued in Riyadh, where the Supercopa is being held. He stopped a point-blank shot from Edinson Cavani, showing excellent reflexes to stick out a hand and deny the Uruguayan striker when he seemed certain to score. It was soon flagged offside, but Courtois was not to know.
The Madrid keeper looked comfortable, both when defending his goal and playing out from the back. Despite the high pressing from Gennaro Gattuso’s side, he showed few signs of discomfort when passing out with his feet — a skill he has improved upon since joining Madrid.
Samuel Lino’s goal for Valencia after a marking error from Lucas Vazquez was the only downside for Courtois, who also saved Madrid from going behind at 1-1 when he kept out a dangerous Hugo Duro shot. Then he proved his worth again in the penalty shootout — even if Ancelotti claimed in the build-up to the semi-final that his team hadn’t prepared for that eventuality.
Courtois, however, was more than prepared — as in every game, he had analysed potential takers (including Gaya) on his own and with goalkeeping coach Luis Llopis.
“Every now and then some team-mates ask to practise penalties after the training sessions and we do that,” Courtois said. “But from my side, it’s more a case of watching the last (attempts) of the opponents. I saw Cavani shot a lot of penalties to our right side lately, that’s why I dived there… with Gaya, I saw he missed the last one against Sevilla, he had missed some others recently and I realised I could stay in the middle.”
That analysis paid off, as the goalkeeper gave his side victory and a place in the final for what could be his eighth title in four years at Madrid. Four years in which he has already lifted two La Liga titles, the Champions League, the Club World Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and two Supercopas de Espana.
Between that and his personality, it is no wonder that he is considered one of the leaders of the team alongside Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Vinicius Jr. Only injuries — which have forced him to miss four La Liga and two Champions League games this season — have prevented him from playing more.
At 30, Courtois is still eager to continue adding titles to his trophy cabinet and emulate his great idol, Iker Casillas. If he continues like this, he has every chance of doing that.
(Top photo: Antonio Villalba/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
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