LONDON - If there was one moment which convinced Jose Mourinho that Thibaut Courtois was Chelsea’s present as well as its future, it probably came in the 94th minute of Belgium’s World Cup quarterfinal clash with Argentina in Brasilia.
The ball broke free on the halfway line, Lionel Messi raced towards goal and the watching world prepared for what seemed inevitable. But Thibaut Courtois had other ideas. The giant Belgian surged out, stood tall and blocked the Barcelona superstar’s chip with his shoulder before regaining his feet and roaring in triumph. Argentina went on to win the match but after eight meetings for club and country, Messi has still not scored against Courtois.
Neither has David Nugent. The comparison between the two men is of course ridiculous, but there was a moment in Saturday’s match at Stamford Bridge which evoked memories of Courtois’ most iconic save to date.
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In the 54th minute, with the game still 0-0, Leicester City broke swiftly from a Chelsea corner and Riyad Mahraz found Nugent 40 yards out with only the Blues goalkeeper between him and a famous goal. Rather than commit himself, Courtois nervelessly closed the distance and narrowed the angles before deflecting the shot wide. Stamford Bridge roared in approval and the body language of the visiting players, impressively unperturbed up to that point, suggested they thought their best chance had gone.
It proved the decisive moment of the match. Chelsea, slow and uninspired in the first half but considerably more dangerous after a halftime, never flirted with disaster again.
Diego Costa opened the scoring nine minutes later with a strike every bit as opportunistic and clinical as his Premier League opener at Turf Moor, and Eden Hazard overcame a lackluster individual display to make the game safe late on.
Chelsea’s ruthlessness at both ends is particularly ominous for the club's rivals. These are early days but, boosted by a summer of carefully targeted recruitment, Mourinho’s men now seem to tick all the boxes of worthy champions.
It is often said that football is a game of moments. This is particularly true of goalkeepers and strikers who, unlike defenders or midfielders, are not generally judged on distances run, passes completed or interceptions made. Their reputations, good or bad, are forged by their decisive contributions, whether crucial saves or goals or costly mistakes.
Petr Cech understands this reality better than most. The 32-year-old has always been mentally prepared for decisive moments, and it is a quality which has helped him establish himself as the greatest goalkeeper in Chelsea’s history, as well as a stalwart of the club’s golden era.
Unfortunately for Cech, however, Courtois understands it too. His incredible achievements on loan with Atletico Madrid are testament to this fact and, despite having only a handful of significant saves to make against Burnley and Leicester City, he has only impressed in a situation which would have seen any mistakes used as cause to question the wisdom of Mourinho’s biggest decision of the summer.
Given Cech’s enduring ability, there is probably no goalkeeper in the world under more pressure than Courtois at this moment. Yet the 22-year-old betrays no sign of nerves on the pitch, commanding his area faultlessly behind unfamiliar defenders and intimidating strikers with his sheer presence.
Many greater tests and opponents await, of course, but should Courtois maintain this level it is impossible to see a future for Cech at Stamford Bridge, despite Mourinho’s recent public insistences to the contrary.
It is a harsh judgement, but brilliance this rare in one so young cannot be held back.