Real Madrid's goalkeeper leaps through the most significant moment in the club's history. Take any photo, watch any video, and there he is, right in the middle of the most viewed and perhaps the most iconic image in their 116-year existence, the climax on a night of drama, suspense, nerves and then explosion, joy unbound. The long wait over, an obsession for more than a decade, there was glory at last.
For him, it was bloody awful -- and they're not slow to remind him of that. Sergio Ramos defeated him that day. Now Thibaut Courtois has to see him every day when he turns up at work. "They still joke about it," he says.
On the night that Real Madrid won their 10th European Cup, Courtois was the Atletico Madrid goalkeeper, defeated as they took the decima. Of the Madrid team that night, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Raphael Varane, Isco and Dani Carvajal are still around, but it's Ramos you have to look out for. Ramos you have to embrace too when you're new at Valdebebas.
Not that they always beat him, and he could remind them of that. That season, he was a league champion -- he has won the title as many times as any Real Madrid players have in the past five years -- and the year before he won the Copa del Rey. Against Real Madrid. At the Santiago Bernabeu. It was one of the greatest moments in Atletico's history: the first time they had beaten Real in 25 games and in the 21st century.
At the celebrations, Courtois stood on a balcony, thousands of supporters spread out below him, took the microphone and sang a rude song about what Real Madrid fans might do as their rivals celebrated.
"I was young and I got carried away with the moment," he said when he joined Real Madrid this summer for €35 million. "I said sorry then and I say the same again; it's not like me to do that."
Courtois had long wanted a return to Madrid; his desire to move away from Chelsea and back to the Spanish capital had become an open secret. No one bothered to try to hide it anymore. "Everyone knew but we just couldn't say so in the media," he said. In fact, he had pretty well said so in the media too.
There were personal reasons -- his kids and his former partner lived in the city -- and professional ones too. Despite his past at Atletico, on the day of his presentation, he kissed the Real Madrid badge. "This is where I always wanted to be," he said. He remembered having an Iker Casillas shirt when he was little; he had probably acquired it after Madrid had played at Anderlecht, if memory serves, he said. His time at Atletico had been good. He had been there on loan for three years -- and he was the one who made it that long, twice insisting on staying in Spain when Chelsea wanted him to return to England -- but he was here now.
That past was swiftly left behind. Outside, at least. It could have been difficult to turn up with Keylor Navas around too. For three years, Madrid had tried to replace the Costa Rican; for three years, he had resisted, winning the Champions League. Zinedine Zidane had defended him, but Zidane was now gone. The dressing room admired him still, although the club had assumed that, signing made, he would be likely to depart. "I have the same desire to die as I do to leave the Bernabeu," Navas said. So he stayed.
Madrid had two goalkeepers, both of whom wanted to start; they would compete. At every news conference, Julen Lopetegui was asked. The questions got reframed and asked over again -- with the wording changing, but not the answer: "This is more normal inside than you seem to want to see it from the outside; things are simpler at professional level than is often sold." Far from a problem, he kept saying, what he has is "two magnificent solutions."
Madrid had rotated their goalkeepers before -- Casillas played in that Lisbon final, while Diego Lopez was the goalkeeper in the league, for example -- but Lopetegui, a former goalkeeper who knows what it is like to spend a very, very long time sitting on the bench, not playing, would not say what his policy was. Even when Navas was chosen for the Champions League game against Roma, he didn't reveal his cards, nor confirm that there was a competition for each man. "It's simple: We choose and we have good options," he said.
In an interview this week, Courtois said: "It's the coach's decision, but nothing has been agreed. There's nothing fixed in terms of a rotation or anything like that."
For the first three games of the season, Navas started. As Courtois had returned late from the World Cup, that made sense: Navas started the UEFA Super Cup and against Getafe and Girona. During the international break, which followed the trip to Girona, Navas stayed behind rather than join up with the Costa Rica national team. That was seen as a way of keeping a hold on his place, or at least not offering the manager an excuse to leave him out of the next game, but Courtois started against Leganes and Athletic Bilbao. Against Roma, it was Navas. Then Courtois started in Seville. And now, on Saturday night, it is Atletico. Navas or Courtois?
A Madrid derby is big anyway; Courtois knows better than anyone in the Madrid dressing room what it means to Atletico. He has beaten Madrid, and lost to them too; that night is the most painful they have suffered. He has played derbies with Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, Koke and Diego Costa, and has worked under Diego Simeone -- the manager who has now gone five consecutive league visits to the Bernabeu without loss. There is a plaque with his name on it outside the Wanda Metropolitano. Scuffed and spat at now, but it's there.
This derby has become bigger than it looked like being. This time last week, Atletico were seven points off the top. In the summer, everyone agreed that they were candidates -- maybe even more so than the season they actually won the league. They had kept Antoine Griezmann, kept Jan Oblak, and signed well. They had spent more money than Real Madrid -- a fact not lost on Madridistas, seeking to undermine the underdog discourse from across the city -- and had arguably the best squad they have ever had.
And yet they seemed to be going through a familiar start, a familiar process, struggling with the same doubts about their identity apparent in the past three years; the evolution into something slightly new looking set to give way, for another season, to a return to what they know, as if they weren't entirely convinced by the new direction they were taking, the path to follow. Defeated by Celta Vigo, they scored a very late equaliser against Eibar that did not hide the disappointment. Nor did it change the table.
The derby appeared set to be the game that might -- silly though it sounds so early -- almost end Atletico's league campaign. Lose, and they would be 10 points off, all over so soon? But then Barcelona dropped five points from six and Madrid were hammered in Seville on Wednesday, the big two defeated for the first time. With Atletico easing past Huesca, resting players in the second half, this looks very different now. Win and they'd be level with Madrid. And they know Madrid well. They know Madrid's goalkeeper even better.
Lack of depth draining Barca's titulares
"This might sound opportunistic, but is there a problem with Barcelona's strength in depth? Can you rotate as you would like? Only, every time you do, it seems that it doesn't work," Ernesto Valverde was asked after FC Barcelona's 2-1 defeat at Leganes on Wednesday. "You're right," he replied, "it is opportunistic."
It might well be, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is right. That night, he had left out Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba, only to be forced to play them as the game slipped away from Barcelona in the second half, turning to his titulares to try to get his team out of trouble, and getting back to his proper players is a pattern that is repeating itself this season. Take Real Sociedad, for example. Or the introduction of Ivan Rakitic and Philippe Coutinho against Girona.
Everyone wants to rotate, and after last season, especially. Suarez admitted that he "regrets" playing against Leganes just days before Barcelona went to Rome in the Champions League, but Valverde does not appear entirely convinced. And maybe that is not surprising; maybe he has a reason to be distrustful. Before Leganes, seven players had played at least 80 percent of the minutes, while Alba and Suarez were among four players who had played every moment. That night, he left them out of the starting 11, seeking rest and recovery, only to have to get them back on again.
So far, it simply isn't working, and the new signings have yet to make any real impact, while there is little real contribution from the squad players who are not natural starters. Sergio Busquets also seemed to hint at his concerns after Leganes when he replied "next question" to enquiry about rotation. But then, it's not just about them. After all, it's not like all the titulares are very much better. Lionel Messi also has played every minute, while the other player is Gerard Pique -- and he it was who gave away the second goal against Leganes and was at fault for two the week before.