By Shikharr Chandra
“I think the difference was one minute in the second half, where Atlético goalkeeper makes an impossible save from John Terry’s header". Those were Jose Mourinho's remarks following his side's 3-1 home defeat to Atletico Madrid in last season's Champions League semi-final tie. Ironically the goalkeeper he was talking about was owned by Chelsea, but never wore their colours since his signing back in 2011 from KRC Genk.
Thibaut Courtois made an outstanding save to deny Terry in the second half and stop any signs of a comeback from the Blues. Courtois' save left the Chelsea captain surprised whereas the 40,000 odd supporters at Stamford Bridge were reminded of what their side were missing out on over the last few years.
Mark Schwarzer was in goal that night following the injury to Petr Cech and even though the 41-year old had a decent outing despite conceding three goals, the standards set by the young Belgian at the opposite end were almost impossible to match.
It is often seen that when a player gets loaned out regularly, both the parent club and individual tend to lose interest and decide to part ways. Romelu Lukaku's story was something similar after he decided to join Everton on a permanent basis following two seasons of being sent out on loan. Courtois' story though seems to be heading in the right direction for Chelsea as he put on the club's jersey for the first time in their 3-0 pre-season defeat to Werder Bremen.
The goalkeeping department is hardly a place where the Blues are in desperate need of reinforcements. Instead, this season the club has done well to answer all their major weaknesses with the signings of Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, Didier Drogba and Diego Costa, but it seems finding an answer to the 'Courtois-Cech' saga seems to be the most difficult question put in front of Mourinho this season.
Time and time again over the last three seasons, Courtois has reminded Chelsea of his quality. The Belgian has faced his parent club thrice with Atletico Madrid and has conceded just two goals, keeping one clean sheet. The 4-1 demolition of Chelsea in the Super Cup saw a rather comfortable night for the former Genk star, but last season's semi-final tie brought the best out of him, making some miraculous saves to keep Mourinho's side at bay.
When Courtois first joined Atleti back in 2011, the Spanish club was in a state of transition. Coach Diego Simeone was left with a massive void in goal following the departure of David De Gea to Manchester United but that gap was filled rather quickly with the arrival of Courtois who never allowed De Gea's absence to be felt at the Calderon.
Despite his tender age, Courtois' presence and his command over the defense is just extraordinary. Following Atleti's win over Chelsea, former Manchester United defender, Gary Neville praised Courtois' performances and said, "What a joy to watch Courtois was! Dominated his box and caught the ball". His meteoric rise from a teenager to arguably one of the best in the business has been exceptional.
At 22, Courtois comes across as arguably the most matured keeper for his age. He played a pivotal role in guiding Atletico to a Europa League triumph, a Super Cup, Copa Del Rey and their first La Liga title since 1996. He was moments away from lifting the Champions League as well only to be denied by Sergio Ramos in the dying seconds.
It has not just been the team honours where Courtois has made his presence felt. He was voted Belgium's best goalkeeper in 2011, won two Zamora trophies (awarded to the goalkeeper with the lowest goals to game ratio) in 2013 and 2014 and was voted as the La Liga's best goalkeeper in 2013. He was also voted as the Best Belgian Player abroad in 2013.
Standing at more than six-feet tall, Courtois' sheer presence often leaves the attacker in two minds. Similar to Manuel Neuer, Courtois imposing frame has hardly affected his athleticism. He is agile, excellent in one on one situations, comfortable with stopping shots and holding onto the ball.
Unlike De Gea who found it hard to settle into the physicality of the Premier League during the early stages, Courtois comes across as an experienced figure in goal and someone who can handle the pressure of playing in England.
The most remarkable thing about Courtois is that he hardly gets influenced by the players in the opposition line-up. Following the 4-1 defeat to Barcelona in his first season with Atletico Madrid, where Lionel Messi ran the show, Courtois has since managed to stop Messi from scoring in their last eight meetings in all competitions.
His performances against the big guns in the league has been outstanding and even though the results at times have not been in the favour of Atleti, Courtois's stunning individual displays have often grabbed headlines.
Replacing Cech though is Courtois's biggest challenge yet. It is often said that a goalkeeper's best time is when he hits his 30's and at 32, Cech is going strong. The Chelsea goalkeeper kept the most number of clean sheets last season, conceded the least goals and was voted as the best goalkeeper in the league in the PFA Awards.
Although there is no hiding the fact that Cech's performances since his head injury have taken a dip, he still commands a position as arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world today. It's not just his performances that make him such a valuable figure for the side but his sheer experience as well. Following the exit of Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, Chelsea need players who know the club inside-out and who better than the man who has served the club for the last decade.
When Cech first came to Chelsea back in 2004, his biggest test was to displace Carlo Cudicini who was in outstanding form back then. The Czech Republic international was successful in the same and has since made that position his own, ten years on it seems a similar fate awaits Cech, only this time he might find himself on the wrong side.
For Mourinho it is a question of stability versus the future. Cech will provide stability as the defenders know him and can co-ordinate better as compared to Courtois but the 22-year old Belgian provides the club with a more long-term solution and a chance to keep tabs on arguably the hottest goalkeeping property in world football.