Chelsea are a club bathed in goalkeeping riches. In Petr Cech they have arguably the best keeper in the Premier League, and Thibaut Courtois the best young stopper on the planet. In the hands of these two the West Londoners effectively have the number 1 jersey filled for the next 15 years or so. Things are rosy between the sticks at Stamford Bridge surely?
When it comes to goalkeepers it is never as simple as an outfield position; one player is afforded opportunity for the majority of the season whilst another is landed a handful of domestic cup competitions. The usual set-up is to have an established keeper at number 1 and either an experienced head or rising young star as your back up. At the moment Chelsea have the ever-reliable Mark Schwarzer waiting in the wings for his opportunity, a clear hierarchy that both the Australian and Cech are willing to accept.
An issue arises though when two keepers have a genuine claim for that first team place, and this is a problem that Chelsea will likely face from the beginning of next season.
Thibaut Courtois is well into his third season at Athletico Madrid, on loan from Chelsea. The 21-year-old Belgian stopper has grown in the Spanish capital, fast becoming the standout keeper in La Liga and a key part of Diego Simeone’s impressive title challenging side. He has a Europa League and Copa del Rey winner’s medal to underline the point, the latter one thanks in part to a miraculous save that denied Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Full-back Filipe Luis walked past Courtois in the mixed zone shouting: “What a save, madre mia, what a save! The best goalkeeper in the world!”
This is certainly a view shared by many, his manager especially. Diego Simeone is a pragmatist, he realises the harsh financial constraints at a club like Athletico. Diego Costa will likely follow in the footsteps of Radamel Falcao this summer as he departs the Vicente Calderon with a €38m buyout clause being touted amongst the continents top clubs. Simeone was quizzed on where this money would be spent, a club famous for its shrewd cut price deals and prudent transfers, a marquee signing would seem out of the question. But when asked about signing Courtois for that vast sum his answer was clear: “Without doubt,” he said.
It seems clear that Courtois’ immediate future lies either in Madrid or London; so is it time Chelsea were bold and made him the clubs number 1?
This isn’t a question of emotion, clearly Petr Cech is a popular guy at Stamford Bridge but he is also there based on his ability. To simply axe him would not only leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans it would be horribly un-meritocratic.
Cech realises this as well and was hardly sounding like a man faced with the imminent exit door when asked about next season:
“If he comes back and he’s better than me, credit to him, well done to him, but who knows? I’m not afraid. I’m not a fool to think I’ve been here 10 years and I’ll be here another five, just because.”
“I am not playing because my name is Petr Cech. I’m playing because I’ve been playing well and because the manager thinks it improves the team with me in goal. I’ve never had a manager who would just put me in the goal because everybody was used to seeing me there.”
But on the flip-side Chelsea are faced with the issue of another keeper who could well become the best in the world, but thanks to three years in Spain one that now feels alienated from Chelsea and desperate to have a definitive answer on his future.
At 21 Courtois is still in his footballing infancy, even more so by goalkeeping standards; but that said if you are good enough you are probably old enough. It is difficult for Chelsea to be bold on this issue without getting it horribly wrong, the only real solution is to allow both keepers a fair shot at fighting for that first team place.
This is a situation Chelsea would rather have faced in three or so years time when Cech’s career would be nearing its end. To make Courtois your number 1 and to exile Petr Cech would be both unfair and highly risky. It isn’t a certainty that the Belgian will adapt to life in English football with the ease he has in Spain, so many continental keepers have come here and struggled, whose to say Courtois would be any different?
Chelsea would be making a mistake by completely isolating either keeper from their plans, the key is to finding a future solution that benefits the club long term and one that isn’t based on a panic knee-jerk.