Courtois ‘redemption’ disrupts hegemony of strikers
- Real Madrid have now won twice as many European Cups as any other club (AC Milan have won seven); they have won all eight finals in which they have played in the UEFA Champions League era.
- Carlo Ancelotti is the first coach to win the European Cup four times; he is also the only one to have taken a team to five finals.
Ahead of the biggest night of European club football, numerous tactical analysis, speculations and predictions were made on how the match between Liverpool and Real Madrid would play out. In football, a game where goals define the result, marksmen like Karim Benzema, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Vinicius Jr. predictably garnered the most attention on the occasion. And all but certainly, nobody anticipated that a goalkeeper would decide the outcome of the Champions League final at Stade de France on Sunday; and he was none other than Real's Thibaut Courtois.
The Belgian shot-stopper denied Liverpool nine times throughout the match, the highest number of saves made by any keeper in an UCL final since 2003/04. Notably also, Los Blancos' number one pulled off a record number of 59 saves in a Champions League campaign since the aforementioned period.
The Belgian's resistance began from the 16th minute of the match when Courtois dropped down sharply to his left to deny Salah's close-range effort, which sparked the ignition in him for the rest of the match. Five minutes later, a long-range effort from Mane stretched the six and a half feet keeper to his right to finger-tip the ball away from danger.
As Real got the lead around the hour mark, Liverpool came firing in all cylinders. However, the Belgian appeared taller than his stature in front of the goal as he frustrated the reds on several occasions.
When Salah drifted in from the right and crafted a curler on the far corner from outside the box in the 64th minute, Liverpool fans probably had their fingers crossed in optimism. However, Courtois's high-flying dive to the right parried the ball away from target. And moments later, Salah's attempt to avenge for the Kyiv 2018 final had to wait another day as the Belgian closed his shot down from a tight angle in the near-post.
The Courtois show continued as he denied the Egyptian forward, yet again, who was free on goal and his shot was elevated away by the Madrid keeper's spectacular reflex in the 83rd minute.
As the final was heading towards its last minutes, Courtois probably had recalled his previous Champions League final, when he was playing against Real and Atletico Madrid was leading by a goal. But a thumping header from Sergio Ramos in the 93rd minute spoiled his first UCL final.
Conversely, this time playing for Los Blancos, he wouldn't allow history to repeat for himself this time around. His sharpness and ice-cold nerves till the final whistle ensured that the Spanish giants could keep their lead intact and head towards their 14th Champions League title.
"It's incredible, so many years, so much work. Come to the club of my life. I saw many criticising me. Today we have shown who is the King of Europe," Courtois said after the match.
"I needed to win a final for my career, to put some respect on my name."
The initial days Courtois spent at Real after signing from Chelsea were dim, to say the least, as he had a hard time fitting in as his low confidence during the games cost his side to lose games on multiple occasions. He had to talk with psychologists to get his focus back on the game and the result arrived in flying colours as he won two league titles with Real Madrid and when the Los Blancos needed him the most, he rose to the occasion and single-handedly won his first Champions League.
"I saw a lot of tweets saying I will get humbled. But it was the other way around today," the shot-stopper said following his redemption.