Courtois, Hazard, Real Madrid; The White is not always greener
Background image: Laura Hale, CC by 2.0
Normality returns in Spain’s capital. Real Madrid, the superstar team of world football, is battling Catalan giants Barcelona at the top of the table. However, not everything is rosy. Two of Madrid’s biggest stars, one ‘Galactico’ and one perceived bargain are badly struggling to adapt. For Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, the move to Spain is not yielding instant success, silverware and acclaim. A pair that won so much in England are finding the going much harder in sunny Spain.
For Real Madrid, Courtois always ranked second as a transfer target. The fans and Zinedine Zidane clamoured for David De Gea, Spains number one continues to excel at Manchester United on a personal level. Of course, this fell against a backdrop of the underrated Keylor Navas continually spearheading Madrid’s defence to numerous European cups. An ill-fated fax-machine encounter stopped De Gea pulling on the famous white jersey, and Chelsea’s failure to agree a new deal with Courtois meant Madrid could pounce for around £35million. Certainly not Zidane's choice.
The Real fans didn’t want him either – Courtois' Atletico Madrid ties still linger like a bad smell. Los Colchoneros’ ultras pelted the Belgian with toy rats on his first appearance at the Wanda Metropolitano, clearly not impressed at his choice. But Courtois’ perceived arrogance means fans do not take kindly to his opinionated views and haughty perception of himself.
There is no denying that Courtois is a talented goalkeeper. However, the same mistakes creep in time after time. His distribution and reading of the game is still erratic; something which Navas excelled at. Players increasingly find Courtois’ kryptonite of shooting low and hard, aiming between his legs. His footwork is not as good as Atletico counterpart Jan Oblak or Barcelona’s big German Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.
A string of mistakes over the past 18 months saw Courtois benched at various times for different keepers and currently, Alphonse Areola’s good performances are causing increasingly strong scepticism against the Belgian. Patience already runs thin in the boardroom for Courtois – names like Alex Remiro and ironically Courtois’s replacement in London, Kepa Arrizabalaga are well-liked by the Madrid hierarchy.
Don’t discount talented U20 World Cup winner Andriy Lunin, signed last summer from Zorya Luhansk and currently on loan at Real Valladolid getting a shock crack at the jersey if his loan is successful...
Although Chelsea fans might enjoy watching Courtois struggle – he never really took to the club and oft-made noises about leaving. The same can’t be said for Eden Hazard’s issues. The playmaker’s tearful farewell after a man-of-the-match performance in Baku as Chelsea crushed Arsenal 4-1 in the Europa League final a fitting swansong for the Premier League’s best player. Hazard, World Cup Silver Ball winner seemed destined to step into the iconic number seven jersey vacated by Cristiano Ronaldo after he left for Juventus in 2018.
A skilful, quick, two-footed and an endlessly talented dribbler, Hazard’s end product noticeably improved last year, dragging a routinely limp Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri to a lofty third-place finish. However, concerns about Hazard’s weight overshadowed his pre-season preparations. The winger was blighted by poor fitness and niggling injuries, and besides a classy goal against Bayern Munich, he was mostly anonymous.
At Chelsea, the entire system revolved around Hazard and Los Blancos are not affording the Belgian captain the same luxury. He shares the limelight with Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to name a few. The talented Rodrygo, a bigger goal threat than Hazard, fits in better with his direct style and shoot-on-sight attitude. Hazard, a £100m signing risks being upstaged by a Brazilian upstart. Zidane is determined for Hazard, his pet project to succeed and the player frequently speaks in awe of his idol. Hazard never puts up Messi or Ronaldo numbers – very few players beside them manage that – but that excuse won’t sit with Florentino Perez and the Madrid faithful.
Although Hazard is a huge name in Europe, he is a humble man and does not like the limelight. This doesn’t fit well with the Spanish media, who expect Galacticos to be available on-demand for them to press and harass. There is a growing feeling that he preferred being a bigger fish in the smaller pond at Chelsea and, from a marketing perspective, the acquisition of French star Kylian Mbappe, or indeed beating Barcelona to the signing of ex-star Neymar would be a bigger blow. However, Hazard is impressing in recent games and scored his first goal for his new team recently, so his recent ankle injury comes at a bad time, stunting the first fruits of a promising spell at Madrid.
When assessing the two players, Hazard is in a much better position. He has the backing of the manager, is a bonafide Galactico and has the star power to change games on his own. Although he’ll miss the December Clasico, a superstar performance in the reverse fixture later this season could turn him into the fan’s new favourite. It should be said, however, Gareth Bale starred in early Clasico matches, and he is now public enemy number one to the vociferous and volatile fanbase. Courtois, on the other hand, is quickly losing his manager’s faith, is a pariah to the fans and constantly is drawing criticism for similar blunders.
Real Madrid have a proud history of top goalkeepers in recent years, with Iker Casillas and Keylor Navas, and Courtois threatens to blot this copybook. He might find his entry into Real Madrid history ending sooner rather than later if performances don’t improve.