Antonio Conte is not a man who often hypes up his players in public but raise the subject of Thibaut Courtois and the Chelsea head coach is emphatic.
“Thibaut is, for me, one of the best — if not the best — goalkeepers in the world,” Conte said in his weekly media conference on Friday. “This season he’s playing very well and you can see that he’s not only very good with his hands but also with his feet. I think he’s a complete goalkeeper, a modern goalkeeper.”
Conte regards Courtois as an integral part of what he is building at Chelsea, so it’s been no surprise to see reports suggesting the Belgian is in line for a bumper new contract surface in response to further evidence of Madrid’s brazen and persistent interest.
It’s rare to find a great team that doesn’t boast a great goalkeeper, and pretty unusual to find a great goalkeeper who regularly switches teams. The same qualities that make Courtois an ideal foundation for elite Chelsea sides over the next decade would make him particularly hard to replace. After all, Chelsea have already let go of one great goalkeeper as a show of faith in Courtois.
Petr Cech has had his ups and downs since signing for Arsenal but at 34, could still perform at a high level for the next five years. If his anointed successor were also to leave Stamford Bridge ahead of schedule, the merit of the original decision that so incensed Jose Mourinho would have to be re-evaluated.
The difficulty is that a return to Spain (and in particular to Madrid, where he enjoyed three hugely successful seasons on loan with Atletico) is clearly high on Courtois’ list of career objectives, borne of a connection that was forged as much off the pitch as on it.
“From the first minute I fell in love with Spain — the people, the way of life, the food,” he told Marca in September. “I have kept up the late dinners, the siesta, and most of the television I watch is Spanish. When I left Spain I had it very clear in my mind that I would return one day.”
By the time Courtois was finally brought to Stamford Bridge to replace Cech in the summer of 2014, he considered himself “half-Spanish.” Nothing about Chelsea or England so far has been able to match that depth of connection, let alone distract from Madrid’s less-than-subtle advances.
Chelsea fans who were saddened at the departure of Cech were then angered by hints that their new goalkeeper wanted to be elsewhere, while a colder, more aloof Mourinho in his second spell at Stamford Bridge could never replicate the close emotional bond forged between Courtois and Atletico’s charismatic boss Diego Simeone.
This, more than the ticking clock on the five-year contract the Belgian signed in September 2014, is what Chelsea are fighting against but there are signs that things might be beginning to change.
Chelsea’s remarkable winning run in the Premier League since late September has transformed the mood around the club, while Courtois’ performances and demeanour have improved dramatically along with those of his defence. The Belgian is facing fewer than three shots per game this season but has pulled off several outstanding saves over the course of Chelsea’s winning streak, earning him the praise of Conte and endearing him to supporters. When travelling fans chanted his name at the Stadium of Light earlier this month following a spectacular last-minute save to deny former Chelsea youngster Patrick van Aanholt a Sunderland equaliser, it felt like a redemptive moment.
There is hope at Chelsea that the happier, more inclusive and more successful atmosphere Conte is building within the squad can convince Courtois to abandon his assertion back in September that he will re-assess his future at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2018, when he enters the final year of his contract. The club knows know they cannot allow things to get that far but Every transfer window that comes and goes without an extension agreement decreases Courtois’ value and increases his leverage, as Arsenal are now finding in contract talks with star duo Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
Madrid will only grow bolder in their pursuit as time goes on, though president Florentino Perez would do well to remember that Atletico’s public courting of Diego Costa last summer only served to rile Chelsea, further entrenching entrench their public determination to keep their star striker.
Nevertheless, tying Courtois to a new contract now would bring Chelsea the double benefit of avoiding a lengthy and destabilising transfer saga later, as well as ensuring that Conte can get on with the task of building a Stamford Bridge dynasty safe in the knowledge that all of his world-class names are along for the ride.