Chelsea are en route to the Premier League title and one domestic Cup final. And it’s all down to one man, right? Diego Costa? Well, no. It’s down to teamwork and, in my opinion at least, a signing that was even more vital than that of Costa.
I speak of the return to Stamford Bridge of his former Ateltico Madrid colleague, Thibaut Courtois. To my mind he has been the most important ingredient in the new side that Jose Mourinho built.
He plays behind a defence that is experienced and would be lost at sea without John Terry – there can be little denying that some of Chelsea’s defending this season has been lacking. Thibaut Courtois was the man of the match in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final against Liverpool and has pulled off game changing saves in the league. I for one am not at all surprised.
At the start of the English Premier League season, and having watched Spanish football at close quarters for a decade, I found myself being asked whether Costa or Courtois would be the more influential. I narrowly voted for the latter. I think I was proved right.
There is no question that Costa has found scoring goals in the Premier League to be a walk in the park. More so than he did so in Spain, where defending, possession of the ball and passing accurately are skills that are coached endlessly. In English football the art of defending seems to have been forgotten. Diego Costa has been a great signing by Jose Mourinho. But he wasn’t the only one.
The confirmation of Courtois as the number 1 goalkeeper was every bit as important. As was the marvellous man management of the one time disaffected fellow Belgian, Eden Hazard.
Courtois said he would only return from what was a long loan at Atletico, to Stamford Bridge, if he was assured that he would be first choice between the posts. Mourinho was happy to give him such an insurance.
Courtois says: “The first two years at Atletico had gone well and, in 2013, Chelsea had wanted me back but I wasn’t 100% sure.”
Courtios won La Liga with Atletico and reached the Champions League final against city rivals, Real Madrid. He says: “After that, it felt the right moment to go to Chelsea. The manager called me and was talking about this campaign, saying how he saw things for all the team. He thought we’d have a strong side and wanted me to be part of that. That was the gist: he hoped I’d come back.”
And what are his impressions of Jose Mourinho?
“Working for him now, it is easy to see why his sides have that fighting mentality. He motivates you. With Mourinho, everything is good. He knows when to be among his players, as ‘one of us’ making jokes as a friend, and when to be strong and distant, even severe. Not only do we have the individuals, but we have the team ethic. That fighting mentality.”
Courtois is here to stay. He signed a five year contract in September and is now clearly the number one choice goalkeeper above his friend, Petr Cech.
Thibaut says: “Petr was someone I wanted to emulate. We train really well together now, talking a lot about things that can happen in a game. It’s a nice relationship . I understand that, maybe, he’s not happy he doesn’t play and that’s normal. I would be the same. At Atletico the number two goalkeepers would not always speak to me. It wasn’t jealousy, more frustration, but it meant we didn’t get on. But, at Chelsea, Petr and I get on well.”
He has won domestic titles in his native country and in Spain. He’s played in a Champions League final and the European Championships. And now his big hands, agility and command of his penalty area look set to result in him adding the Premier League title to his personal roll of honour.
Not bad for a 22 year old.