Goalkeeper situation thickens Champions League plot
Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who is on loan at Atletico Madrid, adds to the drama of semi-final
Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa is a transfer target for Chelsea this summer. Photograph: Reuters.
Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final was always going to conjure up intrigue of one kind or another. There was the prospect of Josè Mourinho renewing his tete-a-tete with Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, or confronting his former employers Real Madrid to revisit all the rancour surrounding his departure from the Bernabeu last summer. And yet, in being paired with Atletico Madrid, the plot could hardly be thickened any further.
There are different strands to this tale. Most centre around Thibaut Courtois, the talented Belgium goalkeeper bought by Chelsea from Genk in 2011 who has yet to play for the club but is enjoying a third productive season on loan at Vicente Calderon.
Uefa’s statement on “competition integrity”, released half an hour before the draw began, attempted to deliver clarity on the matter. In Uefa’s eyes, Courtois is available to play against his parent club.
A “private contract” between the clubs which might influence the other’s team selection is “null, void and unenforceable so far as Uefa is concerned”, while any attempt to enforce a clause would be “a clear violation” of its regulations and deserving of sanction.
Chelsea consider the details of the deal that took the 21-year-old to Spain to be confidential between player and clubs and have never admitted publicly to the existence of the clause, so there is frustration those details have been confirmed by the Atletico president, Enrique Cerezo.
The financial obligation in question, amounting to €3m for each appearance against the Premier League side, is apparently beyond Atletico’s means so as to make his selection prohibitive which, according to Uefa, would constitute the influencing of the Spanish club’s selection.
The reality is Chelsea rate Courtois. He has long been earmarked as the successor to Petr Cech at Stamford Bridge, his progress in Spain scrutinised on a weekly basis by the goalkeeping coach, Christophe Lollichon.
“We liaise each week and I watch videos or go and see him,” said the Frenchman, who had scouted the 17-year-old Courtois in Belgium eight or nine times to assess his ability. “For me, he is the next number one in the world. He is exceptional. I never see this quality before, except Petr.”
At some stage Lollichon and Mourinho will have to have an awkward conversation with Cech about succession, though that time is not yet. With that in mind, there has been some anxiety among the hierarchy at Chelsea that Courtois’s contract will have only two years to run this summer. There have been talks with his representative and there will be further negotiations aimed at securing the goalkeeper to a new deal.
The Belgian wants to play and would be deeply disappointed to miss out on the experience. Atletico privately expect the player to commit his long-term future to Chelsea but, as soon as he signs, they will attempt to secure him for another season on loan.
To date, that arrangement has suited all parties. Chelsea paid around €8.5m to sign Courtois and they have seen his game develop rapidly. Furthermore, they have benefited financially from the temporary switches, the fees involved believed to be €1m in 2011, €2.75m in 2012 and €4.5m for this season. Those loan charges have effectively covered the cost of signing the youngster in the first place.
Atletico are desperate to retain him, so why strain relations with the club who own him?
The ace in Atletico’s pack is Diego Costa. Chelsea covet the Brazil-born Spain striker and will make his signing this summer a priority. They may simply be confident that their money will persuade Cerezo to sell regardless of whether the clubs’ relationship has broken down over Courtois’s involvement in the Champions League semi-finals. But would it not make more sense for them to waive the €6m fee that would be due if the Belgian participates in both games on the understanding that Costa will be made available to them this summer?
There is dialogue between these teams, and those talks will continue until the first leg at Vicente Calderon. The likelihood is that Courtois will play in that fixture. It may not be until the summer, when the politics are played out, that true clarity reigns.