Thibaut Courtois vs. Keylor Navas battle could be weak link for Real Madrid


During Thibaut Courtois’ presentation at the Bernabeu, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez described the Belgium international as “one of the world’s best goalkeepers, if not the very best,” adding the sponsor-friendly line: “As of today, you are part of a club that does not know the meaning of the word impossible.”

Julen Lopetegui may be inclined to disagree. The Madrid boss has few selection issues on his plate, the starting XI more or less picking itself when everybody is fit, but he faces a delicate issue when it comes to his number one. The long-suffering incumbent of that shirt, Keylor Navas, did not roll over when Courtois arrived, stating that he would “rather die” than abandon the club he has fought so hard over the last three seasons to prove he belongs at while Perez did everything in his power to undermine him.

The guardian behind three consecutive Champions League triumphs, Navas started Real’s opening three competitive games of the season but was confined to the bench as Courtois was handed his debut against Leganes on Sept. 1. After that 4-1 victory, Lopetegui offered his thoughts on his unusual keeper situation: “We have an idea in our heads that we will not make public. We will see where it takes us.”

That idea will be laid out for inspection over the next couple of weeks with Madrid playing five fixtures in quick succession. After a light introduction to the hot seat, Lopetegui now has to negotiate Athletic Bilbao, Roma, in-form Espanyol, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid before the month is out. Who exactly he fancies to keep that lot at bay will prove instructive for the rest of the campaign.

Rotation is a possibility but rarely proves to be a foolproof approach to the most important position on the pitch. Few elite European sides roll the dice with the number one spot, preferring to place their faith in a world-class stopper. Only PSG have a comparable situation this season with Alphonse Areola currently keeping Gianluigi Buffon at arm’s length. At 40 years old, the veteran former Juventus keeper can be excused if he eyes the Parc des Princes bench as a reward rather than a punishment. 

Courtois and Navas are in their prime and share 150 caps between them. The former won the Golden Glove at the 2018 World Cup while the latter is the holder of the 2017-18 Champions League goalkeeper of the season award. Neither is likely to welcome a spot in the dugout.

Costa Rica excused Navas from the international break, acutely aware that their most valuable asset was better off at Valdebebas under the eye of his club employers: Los Ticos shipped seven in his 180-minute absence. Courtois kept two clean sheets as Belgium thumped Scotland and Iceland. Freshness or form? It is a consideration Lopetegui will become more than familiar with this season.

In all likelihood Navas will start in San Mames on Saturday, paving the way for Courtois to face Roma. But that is probably back-to-front per the rest of the campaign. A €35 million keeper can reasonably expect to be first choice for league action, the yardstick by which most managers measure a successful season.

Shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and labouring under the statistical improbability of winning a fourth consecutive Champions League title, Navas’ natural habitat would appear to be the cup competitions, despite his insistence that Lopetegui remains open to all options. A group softer than Hans Christian Andersen’s pea-obsessed princess’ 20 mattresses gives Lopetegui the perfect opportunity to test his bed before lying in it.

Continuity, though, is key to the combined success of any defence and Real are scarcely synonymous with clean sheets. Diego Simeone recently stated that Courtois would not get a game at his former club “because [Jan] Oblak is a better keeper.” The statistics back the Atletico boss’ claim — Oblak conceded an average of 0.57 goals last season compared to Navas’ 1.11 and Courtois’ 1.02 — but a keeper is only as good as what is in front of him.

Navas is admired and respected by his teammates precisely because he exudes a sense of calm that filters through to a back four who are no strangers to penalty area chaos. Altering that dynamic represents a huge gamble even if Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are in a state of grace.

Courtois alluded to the goalkeepers’ union during his presentation but in the battle for the starting spot at Real Madrid the gloves are firmly off. Lopetegui has been handed a squad capable of battling on four fronts this season and many managers would envy his range of choice between the sticks. If handled poorly though, that wealth of talent risks proving to be the weakest link in a post-Zidane and Ronaldo era.



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