Playing in goal for Real Madrid would be difficult enough without Bernabeu politics making it even trickier for current incumbents Thibaut Courtois and Alfonse Areola – and the keeper position is now a serious problem for Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane coming into a potential crucial moment of the season.
Zidane has backed Courtois as his clear first choice – but the former Chelsea man had his worst evening since joining Madrid in summer 2018 in Tuesday’s Champions League Group A game at home to Club Brugge. The Belgian was substituted at half-time, having been whistled by his own team’s fans after his fellow countrymen had shocked everyone by going 2-0 ahead.
After replacement Areola made a vital save as Madrid came back to a 2-2, and remain more than likely to progress from the group, Zidane said that “stomach problems” had forced Courtois off. It was not the most convincing explanation, and no further medical details were immediately released.
A section of the Spanish media took the information vacuum as an opportunity to pile further onto a player who has become a handy scapegoat for Madrid’s issues both this season and last. Some influential local pundits have been particularly slow to accept Zidane replacing popular figure Keylor Navas with the former Atletico Madrid star.
Thursday’s cover of local sports daily AS trumpeted that Courtois had conceded 0.99 goals a game when playing for Madrid, compared to 0.81 at Chelsea and just 0.66 at Atletico. The obvious explanation was that instead of playing behind superb defences organised by Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone, he was now being 'protected' by a back four in which Madrid and Spain captain Sergio Ramos had been at fault again for both Brugge goals on Tuesday.
Ramos remains untouchable no matter how bad his form, but there was a clamour of noisy voices competing to criticise Courtois. And a line was crossed by an unsubstantiated claim in OK Diario that Madrid’s medical staff had diagnosed the 27 year old with “anxiety”. No details were given in the short online piece, and “anxiety” is not really a medical condition, but it was picked up by most other outlets and became the day's biggest sports story.
Courtois did not reply in public and Madrid also took almost 24 hours before they issued any official response. “At no stage has [Courtois] been diagnosed with an alleged anxiety attack,” said a club statement. “He was diagnosed and treated for acute case of gastroenteritis with dehydration and electrolyte imbalance [so] was unable to complete the game against Club Brugge.”
With Courtois not having yet returned to full training with his colleagues, Saturday’s home game with Granada brought a second La Liga start for Areola, who joined from Paris Saint Germain on a season-long loan on deadline day in September, as Navas went the other way.
Areola looked comfortable through the first half as Madrid took control through Karim Benzema’s sixth La Liga goal of the season, and then Eden Hazard’s sweetly taken first since joining from Chelsea last summer.
With newly promoted Granada completely outclassed, the 26-year-old dealt confidently and capably with the few overhit through balls and crosses that came his way, and received supportive applause from the Bernabeu each time. His first save came soon after half-time, a half-hit 20 yarder from young on loan from Man City midfielder Yangel Herrera.
Madrid looked to have wrapped up the game via a 30-yard rocket to the top corner from substitute Luka Modric. But then came a first wobble from Areola - who came to take a Granada corner but completely missed the ball, and was fortunate opposition defender German Sanchez could not direct his header to the gaping goal.
Just a few minutes later came a proper clanger - Areola took too many touches to control a routine back pass, allowing Granada’s Carlos Fernandez to get on top of him. He attempted to hoof the ball clear but just kicked Fernandez instead, and referee Santiago Jaime Latre pointed to the penalty spot.
There was uproar from the home fans, but VAR confirmed the decision. Darwin Machis kept his cool as Areola argued further with Jaime Latre, and smashed in the spot kick to give Granada a sniff of a comeback.
With nerves spreading around the Bernabeu, Granada soon scored again. Defender Domingos Duarte applied the finishing touch past a sprawling Areola at the back post after a routine corner had been flicked on. The Frenchman looked properly flustered now and soon hit a simple pass straight out of play. Granada were not able to really test him again however, and calm returned when James Rodriguez scored late on to secure a 4-2 victory which keeps Madrid atop the table, two points ahead of second placed Barcelona and three above Atletico.
Afterwards Madrid director Emilio Butragueno said that Granada’s first goal had merely been “an accident”, while Zidane also tried to take any heat out of the situation.
“[Areola] knows that he made a small mistake,” he told the postgame news conference. “But overall he did very well. Not just shot stopping, but talking to his defence, dealing with pressing. I am happy for him. We just all need to stick to this path now, and all play our part.”
None of Madrid’s biggest names spoke about Courtois in the mixed zone afterwards, leaving it to young midfielder Fede Valverde to say that “problems are invented which have not happened” - an apparent reference to the OK Diario report.
Valverde, 21, was sticking up for his teammate. But his reading of the situation seemed quite innocent, given the close relationship between certain Spanish reporters and senior club figures. OK Diario is run by former Marca editor Eduardo Inda, who was once called 'Florentino's puppet' by Barcelona defender Gerard Pique for a supposed tendency to report the approved line from Blancos president Florentino Perez.
Another with a close connection to the Bernabeu hierarchy is El Chiringuito de Jugones TV show host Josep Pedrerol. His programme has regularly criticised Courtois’ performances ever since arrival, amid claims that it was unfair for him to have knocked Navas out of the team, and has been particularly vocal recently in promoting Areola's claims to start.
As far back as last March Courtois felt the need to hit back to such coverage: “I’m one of the best around, even though the Spanish press want to kill me,” he told reporters back in Belgium.
This week’s international break should allow for some cooling of tempers. Areola's move to Madrid has seen him recalled to the French set-up, and an injury to Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris means he could start their Euro 2020 qualifiers against Iceland and Turkey.
Meanwhile Courtois is to join up with the Belgium camp on Tuesday for assessment of his situation - with it looking quite likely that he will start their qualifiers against San Marino and Kazakhstan. His national manager Roberto Martinez is presumably keen to have him – given he is currently 524 minutes without conceding for his national side, which also has a well organised and settled defence.
Who starts in goal for Madrid’s next La Liga outing - at Mallorca on Saturday 19 October - is now an open question. That is quickly followed by a must win Champions League fixture at Galatasaray, and then a La Liga Clasico at the Camp Nou. No pressure then on whoever Zidane picks, and no shortage of cynical pundits waiting to take advantage however it goes.
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