From 'invisible' to 'unbelievable': Courtois' journey to Champions League crown with Real Madrid

Real Madrid's Courtois made nine saves against Liverpool - the most by any keeper in a Champions League final.

Courtois lifts the Champions League trophy after beating Liverpool oin the final.   -  GETTY IMAGES

"Unbelievable! I tell you, I cannot believe it," said an elated Carlo Ancelotti about Thibaut Courtois’ game-changing performance in the Champions League final against Liverpool.  

The Belgian goalkeeper made nine saves against the Reds - the most by any keeper in a Champions League final. It was a night of leaky defending by the Los Blancos as it allowed 24 shots and Liverpool had an astonishing 2.14 expected goals. Forwards Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah combined to take six shots on goal but failed to beat the in-form Courtois. 

WATCH: Two United fans look back at Liverpool's UCL final loss

 

When asked about his best save from the match, the Belgian said his 20th-minute save from Mane’s shot was his personal favourite and the most difficult one. "The save on Mane was a ball between lines and there we didn't defend well. But in general, I thought it was my day and I had to save everything," said the Belgian. 

Courtois had a figure of 2.58 post-shot xG prevented in the final, which was the best performance by any keeper in the tournament.

Early career

Born on May 11, 1992, in Bree, a city in the Flemish province of Limburg, Belgium, Courtois’ first taste of football came with the local side, Bilzen V.V where he played as a left-back. His goalkeeping journey started in 1999 when he joined Racing Genk as a seven-year-old.   

Rising rapidly through the ranks, Courtois was a key figure in Genk’s title victory season in 2010-11 as a 19-year-old.

Move to Chelsea

Courtois made a move to Chelsea in July 2011, for a reported fee of Euro 9 million, signing a five-year deal. However, soon after joining Chelsea, he was loaned to Spanish side Atletico Madrid. 

Atletico Madrid and global recognition 

It was in Atletico Madrid that Courtois got noticed as a promising goalkeeper. In his first season with Atletico, he reached the Europa League final and kept a clean sheet in his side’s 3-0 win over Athletic Bilbao. 

Courtois' reputation grew in stature during his loan spell at Atletico. Photo: AP

Courtois’ loan was extended in the 2012-13 season, and it was another fruitful year with Atletico. His first game of the season was against his parent club Chelsea in the final of the UEFA Super Cup where Atletico beat Chelsea 4-1. As the season progressed, Courtois set an Atletico record of not conceding a goal for 820 minutes at the Estadio Vicente Calderon, the then home stadium of Atletico. That season Atletico reached the Copa del Rey final where Courtois was named man of the match in a 2-1 win against rival Real Madrid. It was Atletico’s first win against its city rival in 14 years. 

Chelsea agreed to extend Courtois’ loan by a further 12 months in the 2013-14 season. It was another stellar season for the Belgian 'keeper. Courtois won the Ricardo Zamora Trophy and played a key role in Atletico's league win that season, its first since 1996.  

"When I joined [Atletico] three years ago it was not sure I would stay three years. I stayed one year and said I would see. We won the Europa League, the European Super Cup and then the next year it was the Copa del Rey and now it's the [league] title. It was unthinkable to achieve all of those things," said Courtois after the title win. 

Courtois had the chance to win club football’s biggest honour with Atletico after reaching the Champions League final that season but lost 4-1 to rival Real Madrid.  

Back to Chelsea 

When Jose Mourinho returned for his second stint at Chelsea in the 2014-15 season, he said the club has Courtois in its plans and he would return for the upcoming season. That season, he signed a five-year contract extension with the London club. He won the League Cup after keeping a clean sheet in Chelsea’s 2-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur in the final and also went on to win the Premier League. 

The 2015-16 season was a forgettable one for the Belgian. Not only was it devoid of any trophies or personal honours, but he also became the sixth Premier League goalkeeper to be sent off twice in a season for fouls on Swansea City’s Bafetimbi Gomis and Manchester City’s Fernandinho.

In the 2016-17 season, the Belgian squashed transfer rumours and publicly stated his desire of staying at Chelsea for many years to come. He won the Golden Glove in the Premier League that season after keeping 16 clean sheets but could not help his team win any trophies. 

Courtois won the Premier League twice during his stint with Chelsea. Photo: Getty Images

Trouble in Chelsea and an ugly exit  

Everything seemed to be perfect between Chelsea and Courtois and the club genuinely thought it had a long-term successor to Petr Cech. However, after the 2017-18 season, Courtois expressed his desire of living closer to his family and it wasn’t long before rumours about a move to Real Madrid started doing the rounds.  

After an impressive campaign at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, where the Belgian won the Golden Glove, Courtois expressed his desire to move from the club, but Chelsea was adamant about not letting him leave till it found a proper replacement. Courtois responded by ghosting Chelsea after the summer break and not showing up for training. The statement was clear and the relationship between the player and the club worsened further.  

On August 8, 2018, Real Madrid announced that it had signed Courtois on a six-year contract for a reported fee of GBP 35 million.  

Journey with the Royal Whites 

Courtois had a tumultous start at Real Madrid as the team finished third in La Liga with the Belgian conceding 36 goals in 27 league games. He was labelled 'invisible' by critics as every shot he faced seemed to end in goal.

But since then, Courtois has established himself as the undisputed number one and won over the Madristas. Courtois has won two La Liga titles, one Supercopa de Espana and most recently, the Champions League in his four years.

Courtois endured a torrid start to his Real Madrid career in 2018-19. Photo: REUTERS

 

In the 2019-20 season, he kept 17 clean sheets, becoming the first Real Madrid goalkeeper to do so in a single season since Francisco Buyo in 1994–95. He won the Ricardo Zamora Trophy for the third time in his career after conceding just 20 goals in 34 matches.  

On August 16, 2021, the Belgian signed a four-year contract extension with Real Madrid until 2026. He won his second La Liga title with Real Madrid last season.  

In the Champions League final against Liverpool, his nine saves earned him the Man of the Match award and his first UCL title after his side beat Liverpool.  

''I saw a lot of tweets coming my way today saying that I will be humbled, but I think it was the other way around.  

"Today I needed to win a final for my career, for all the hard work - to put respect on my name because I don't think I have a lot of respect in England,” said Courtois after winning the final.  

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