Can Thibaut Courtois displace Keylor Navas at Real Madrid?
Thibaut Courtois was forewarned. Keylor Navas wasn't ready for new companions, especially goalkeepers. Not the Belgium international. Not even young Andriy Lunin. The Costa Rican sounded this warning after Real Madrid's 2-1 victory over Roma in a friendly earlier this month.
Tell everyone loud and clear, I have as much enthusiasm for leaving Madrid as I do for dying.
Being a devout Christian, those were uncharacteristic words. Superstition aside, though, it was a reflection of an unhappy man. Navas had grown utterly frustrated at the Santiago Bernabeu. Despite consistent and important performances, he was unappreciated.
Madrid have strolled to three Champions Leagues since Navas arrived in 2014. The highly revered Iker Casillas lifted the same, but it took the Spaniard twelve extra years. For all his artistry, Gianluigi Buffon is still an amateur concerning Europe's most prestigious club competition.
Each summer brought about a familiar ordeal for Navas. Los Blancos sort after perceived top-class number one. With Florentino Perez more focused on throwing in cash rather than execution, it shouldn’t be a surprise. First David de Gea, then Kepa Arrizabalaga. Before Courtois cheapened himself to the Real supremo, who gleefully took advantage.
During the unveiling, Perez described his newest Galactico as “one of the best goalkeepers in the world, if not the best”. It was not something the club president would say for a player coming in as the second choice. The message was clear: Courtois was signed to take Navas’ place. The latter had sensed the plot. He wasn't deterred.
With Courtois unavailable due to extended World Cup break, Navas started the campaign as the first choice. He was in goal for the UEFA Super Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid. His Belgian teammate didn't make the squad. And even though the ex-Levante keeper conceded four, he kept his place in La Liga opener against Getafe.
Madrid found the net twice, picked up three points yet, more importantly, Navas was unbeaten.
Courtois was expected to step in at Girona. He had never been benched for two successive league matches since playing for Genk, aged 17. Julen Lopetegui, however, kept the faith. He was vindicated.
Navas put in another superb shift as Real triumphed 4-1. He raced off his line at lightning speed to deny Portu when the Girona winger was sent through on goal, something Courtois might not have been able to do given his body frame.
Navas wasn’t done just yet. He produced another fine save to prevent Borja Garcia, who netted Girona’s opener, from adding a second. The 31-year-old made two more remarkable stops, one of which was utterly spectacular, diving high to his right to tip away Alex Granell's left-footed volley. He then turned provider with a superb delivery to Isco which led to Gareth Bale’s goal.
If Courtois was unaware of the task ahead, he sure is now. After all, the stats are against him. During the last three campaigns combined, Navas (1.0) had a slightly superior goal conceded per game ratio to the Belgian (1.1). With 74.1% against 69.4, he also comes out top on saves.
As an ex-keeper himself, Lopetegui is well-versed in the position's peculiarities. He understands his team's needs, too. On one hand, the Madrid boss must be under immense pressure from Perez to start his new Galactico. But on the other, he is relishing the level of competition for places every week.
With the Champions League and Copa del Rey beginning in September and October, there will be opportunities for Courtois. However, for now, Navas’ spot is his to lose.