Petr Cech has dropped a few clangers – and out of the FourFourTwo Top 100. Unlike Thibaut Courtois, the permaloaned prodigy who astonished Andrew Murray…
The Santiago Bernabeu holds its breath. The ball fizzes across the six-yard box to the back post. Unmarked, Mesut Ozil draws back his left foot. It's a goal, 2-2 in the 2013 Copa del Rey final, the momentum swinging to Los Blancos on their own patch against city rivals Atletico. Jose Mourinho will win his trophy, with which to leave his final La Liga season on a high.
Only, that's not what happened. As the future Arsenal playmaker struck firmly at goal, something incredible occurred. Something even more incredible than Spain's premier cup competition being decided on a Friday night so the land that gave us Julio Iglesias and Las Ketchup could bask in the unbridled joy that would be Denmark's stunning victory in the following evening's Eurovision Song Contest.
Watching transfixed in an empty South London flat, I leapt to my feet and screamed: "Holy s**t, what a save!" Thibaut Courtois had just sped from his front post, where he had gone to narrow Angel Di Maria's shooting angle, to the back post and – in one movement – block Ozil's effort. It's the best save I've ever seen in real time. The scoreline remained 2-1 to Atleti.
And so Los Colchoneros beat their aristocratic neighbours for the first time in 25 (TWENTY-FIVE!!) attempts, qualify for this season's Champions League and even adorn the cover of last month's FourFourTwo
thanks to eight wins from their first eight games. And at the heart of it all has been the 6ft 6in Belgian, performing athletic prodigies with the bullet-swaying, time continuum-stopping serenity of a character in The Matrix
It's not just the one instance, there have been plenty: Google "Courtois, Real Sociedad save
" to be definitively converted. He was 2012-13's Zamora, the award given to the keeper who concedes the fewest La Liga goals, and is on his way to defending his crown.
Mourinho may have been quick to praise Courtois' potential after that final, but upon his return to Chelsea the Special One still sent the 21-year-old back to the Vicente Calderon for a third successive season's loan. Petr Cech retains Mourinho's faith and No.1 jersey, but the elephant in the room is wearing red-and-white stripes and sporting a sign that says, "I'm Thibaut Courtois, and I'm Chelsea's best keeper."
Courtois: Belgium's No.1, but not Chelsea's.
The Czech has dropped out of our Top 100 Players in the World, the aura that surrounded his first campaign under Mourinho evaporating. High-profile errors against West Brom and Manchester City highlight a keeper in decline, albeit one who has staved off what had appeared a terminal loss of form two seasons ago. True, Courtois has erred a couple of times this season — most notably in Atleti's first defeat to Espanyol and against Zenit St Petersburg in the Champions League — but these are very much in the minority over the last three years.
Next summer, Courtois enters the final two years of his Chelsea contract, a deal he has refused to discuss further until after the World Cup. Should Cech's indifferent form persist and cost the Blues a title shot, how much longer can Mourinho ignore Courtois? He might find it's already too late...