Thibaut Courtois wasn’t the ‘Galactico’ goalkeeper Real Madrid president Florentino Perez originally wanted. Instead, David de Gea was identified as Real Madrid’s next number one as Iker Casillas faded. The Manchester United goalkeeper agreed terms on a move to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2015 only for the transfer to fall through at the deadline.

It wasn’t for a further three years that Perez got a new goalkeeper, but it was Courtois, not de Gea, who signed. This came after Keylor Navas had made himself Real Madrid’s number one and many viewed Courtois’ arrival as unnecessary. The Belgian wasn’t helped by a shaky first season for his new club.

Since then, though, Courtois has grown to the point that he is now considered among the best goalkeepers in the world. Without the 30-year-old between the posts, Real Madrid might not have won La Liga this season. They almost certainly wouldn’t have made the final of the Champions League such was the standard of Courtois’ performances in the knockout rounds.

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Barely a Real Madrid match passes without Courtois pulling off at least one stunning save. His reflexes are sharper than any other goalkeeper’s at the elite level of the European game right now and that’s just as well for Real Madrid, who can be defensively vulnerable. Courtois makes up for a lot.

No goalkeeper has made more saves than Courtois in La Liga this season. Only two goalkeepers have made more saves than him in the Champions League. The Belgian has stopped 77% of shots on target he has faced in the competition this season, illustrating his importance to Ancelotti’s Real Madrid.

Other goalkeepers see Courtois’ brilliance even if the 30-year-old doesn’t always receive the accolades he serves. “There’s not enough appreciation of Courtois,” said Athletic Bilbao and Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon. “Courtois’ work is not valued as it should be, and he is a pillar of the team. There are lots of stars at Madrid, like Benzema, Modric and Kroos, and they would not have won without him.”

Ancelotti sees it too. “The list is long,” the former AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain boss answered when asked if Courtois is currently the world’s best goalkeeper. “Iker Casillas, Diego Lopez, Gianluigi Buffon, Petr Cech, Manuel Neuer … but for us here he is the best in this moment.”

While Courtois was already a league winner with Atletico Madrid and Chelsea by the time he joined Real Madrid, he has worked hard to prove himself. No other club is so demanding of its players – just look at how Gareth Bale has been vilified by his own supporters despite achieving so much during his time in Spain.

Courtois didn’t just have to prove himself to Real Madrid’s fans, but to their manager too. The Belgian goalkeeper admitted there was “distance” between him and Zinedine Zidane and also acknowledged how his arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2018 threatened to upset the chemistry of the dressing room. Sergio Ramos was particularly close to Navas, the goalkeeper Courtois was signed to replace.

The notoriously harsh Spanish press frequently targeted Courtois, even raising the prospect without any basis that the Belgian suffered an anxiety attack during a match. A poll revealed most fans wanted Navas to start over Courtois with many viewing the Costa Rican as a better option at the time.

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Over time, though, Courtois earned the trust of Zidane and has been Real Madrid’s undisputed first-choice goalkeeper for a number of seasons. While the 30-year-old might not be a particularly modern number one in his use of the ball and distribution out from the back, there are few better right now at keeping the ball out of the net.

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