Thibaut Courtois celebrated winning the Spanish League yesterday three years to the day from when he celebrated lifting the Belgian League with Genk. His comments, as the realisation began to sink in late on Saturday, suggest that he now accepts that next year the challenge will be the Premier League with Chelsea.
“I will miss all this the day I have to say goodbye,” he said still wet with the champagne that had been sprayed all around him on the pitch at the Nou Camp after Atletico Madrid’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona clinched the La Liga title.
“I have built up a very good relationship with the supporters in the three years that I have been here. I never imagined this would happen when I arrived at the club.”
Courtois was beaten in the first half on Saturday by a shot from Alexis Sanchez that no goalkeeper in the world would have saved, but that goal was not enough to deprive him of the coveted Ricardo Zamora Trophy for the keeper who has let in fewest goals this season. He was winning the award for the second year running.
The Belgian also passed another landmark – it was the seventh consecutive game in which he had shut out Lionel Messi. Petr Cech had done so six times but the man who may well take his place in Chelsea’s first XI next season has now surpassed that record.
If Courtois’ star is rising, Messi’s continues to crash to earth. Barcelona made much of their coup last week in persuading him to sign a new contract but he was whistled off on Saturday having been among the worst of Barça’s performers. It was an awful display from the home side, not becoming a team who had the league title in their sights before kick-off and practically in their hands at half-time.
There is actually very little “new” about Messi’s latest deal. His contract will still run to 2018, his buyout clause stays at €250m (£200m) and, despite earlier reports to the contrary, it seems even his image rights remain 100 per cent his. There is a slight pay rise that, club sources suggest, puts him on around €20m a season, and as a consequence just above Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
It seemed to matter last week that he had once again become the best-paid player on the planet. It seemed to matter a lot less at the end of the game on Saturday night after he had shown, as he has done many times this season, that he is no longer the world’s best player. Whether he regains that mantle at the World Cup, time will tell. For Courtois there is a World Cup and a European Cup final to look forward to.
“I want to win next week in Lisbon [against Real Madrid] and then I’m off to Brazil. The last three years have been incredible,” he said.
He was hugged by Diego Costa at the final whistle – the Brazilian Spain international’s tears after being taken off in the first half having turn to smiles by the end.
He may well be joining Courtois at Stamford Bridge next season. Before that Costa will hope to play a bigger part in the Champions League final than he was able to do in the league title play-off.
Costa came off after 15 minutes and his right hamstring looks likely to rule him out of Saturday’s game. The tears he shed on the Atletico bench certainly seemed to suggest he is beginning to fear the worst.
Costa and Arda Turan, who was also taken off in the first half against Barcelona but is more optimistic about making the final, were the most vocal in the Atletico dressing room at half-time, urging the team on to finish the job without them in the second half.
There was no opportunity to ask what the Barça coach, Gerardo Martino, said to his players at half-time because he took no questions post-game and simply confirmed that he was stepping down. Luis Enrique should be named as his replacement this week.
“In no moment did I think that the game was getting away from us,” said Atletico’s Diego Simeone, who will surely now win Fifa manager of the year, having not even made the top 10 last season.
“The bigger the challenge the more my players have given me. It’s been 18 years since we have won the league but there has been a gradual realisation this season that we could win it,” he added.
Simeone’s father, Carlos, was ushered to the front of the Nou Camp at the end of the game so his son could embrace him. “I was concerned to see him crying because he never cries,” said the Atletico coach.
Over 100,000 Atletico supporters celebrated the title at the fountain of Neptune in the Spanish capital. One year ago they had gathered there to celebrate beating Real on their own ground to win the Spanish Cup, now they had won in Barça’s stadium to win the league. In five days they have the chance to become Champions of Europe in Lisbon against Ronaldo and Real.