Champions League final 2014: Thibault Courtois ready for pinnacle moment of his three-year stay with Atletico Madrid
Goalkeeper has been on loan from Chelsea since 2011 and will start the Champions League final on Saturday when they Atletico meet Real Madrid
Tuesday 20 May 2014
The Champions League final with local rivals Real Madrid is set to be the pinnacle of Thibaut Courtois' extraordinary career with Atletico Madrid.
The Belgian goalkeeper joined Los Rojiblancos in 2011 from Chelsea on a loan deal that was only supposed to last 12 months.
Courtois came to Atletico to fill the void left by David de Gea, who had just left his boyhood club to join Manchester United, but proved to be just as popular as the Spaniard, winning the Europa League in his first season as Atletico eased past Athletic Bilbao in the final in Bucharest, winning 3-0. Chelsea agreed to extend the youngster's stay in Madrid that summer, and then watched in awe as Courtois and Atletico thrashed the Londoners 4-1 in Monaco to win the Uefa Super Cup.
Eight months later, Courtois was Atletico's saviour in the 2013 Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid. He made three vital saves in an enthralling 2-1 win after extra time at the Bernabeu, prompting the then Madrid coach Jose Mourinho to remark that "St Mary was behind the goal".
Chelsea agreed to let Courtois' adventure in Madrid continue, allowing the goalkeeper, by now Belgium's undisputed number one, to compete in the Champions League for the first time. Just as with every other challenge the goalkeeper has met in his short but eventful career, Courtois exceeded expectations, conceding just six goals on the way to the final, fewer than any other goalkeeper.
The Belgian came to his side's rescue in the first leg of the quarter final tie with Barcelona, making crucial saves from Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta to keep the score 1-1, his side progressing to the final four thanks to a 1-0 win in the return leg.
That set up another encounter with Chelsea, and weeks of speculation about whether Courtois would be allowed to face his parent club. He did, and as fate would have it, the colossal stopper produced an extraordinary save in the second leg at Stamford Bridge to prevent John Terry giving Chelsea the lead. Just a few minutes later, Diego Costa scored from the penalty spot to put Atletico on the way to their first European Cup final in 40 years.
Courtois and Atletico now head to Portugal as Spanish champions after clinching the Primera Division title on the final day of the season at the Nou Camp.
"When I joined three years ago I was not sure I would stay three years," Courtois admitted to reporters after winning the league.
"I stayed one year and said I would see. We won the Europa League, the Super Cup and then the next year it was the Copa del Rey and now the title. It was unthinkable to achieve all of those things."
The 22-year-old Courtois has been instrumental to those achievements.
Team-mate Tiago Mendes said: "Even though he's just a boy, when you are on the pitch and you look behind and see him, you feel so much security. He's an outstanding goalkeeper. For me he's the best in the world right now."
The final in Lisbon could well be Courtois' last hurrah for Atletico.
His loan agreement with the Spanish club ends this summer, and with Chelsea number one Petr Cech requiring surgery on a dislocated shoulder, Mourinho is expected to recall Courtois to the club that signed him from Genk for £7 million.
Courtois has remained tight-lipped about his future, saying he will only announce whether he stays in Madrid for another year or heads to Stamford Bridge after the Champions League final.
But he admitted his departure from the Calderon will be heart-wrenching when it arrives.
"The day I leave Atletico I'll miss the fans so much," he told reporters.
"The love they've given me has been immense."
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