Belgium's Thibaut Courtois has silenced his critics before England tie

From invisible to invincible: How Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has won over his doubters at Real Madrid as Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils prepare to take on England in the Nations League on Sunday

  • Thibaut Courtois is preparing to take on England with Belgium on Sunday night 
  • The goalkeeper had a tricky start to the season with Real Madrid but is improving
  • Courtois suffered from anxiety when he first moved to the LaLiga giants in 2018
  • The Belgian stopper also has a much better relationship with Sergio Ramos now 

There is a picture on Real Madrid’s dressing-room wall of Sergio Ramos heading a 93rd-minute equaliser in the 2014 Champions League final.

It is nice for Ramos to remember how he saved Real, who went on to beat Atletico Madrid 4-1 in extra time, but not so great for Thibaut Courtois, who was the beaten keeper on the night in Lisbon.

It has never been easy for Courtois at Real. When he arrived in 2018 he did so not just as a former Atletico player, but with the hugely popular Keylor Navas still at the club.

Thibaut Courtois has never found it easy at Real Madrid but is starting to show form in Spain

Courtois played for Atletico Madrid and lost the Champions League final to Los Blancos in 2014

The Costa Rican was loved by his team-mates and especially supported by captain Ramos, who had never entirely agreed with the need for a new keeper.

The mental strength displayed by Courtois to survive and thrive at Madrid in those circumstances and after a shaky first season and a half has been every bit as impressive as his stunning form this campaign.

The Belgium keeper, 28, who will be out to stop England on Sunday, was on a run of conceding just six goals in 14 league games before injury struck, preventing him from playing at Wembley last month.

Since then, Madrid have wobbled defensively but that has only made Courtois’s form even more important. Once dubbed the invisible goalkeeper, Courtois is now the safest hands in Spain.

Courtois (above) will be in goal when his native Belgium take on England in the Nations League

He proved it last season when he ended Jan Oblak’s four-year reign as Spain’s best keeper by winning La Liga’s award for conceding the fewest goals. Courtois kept 17 clean sheets, two short of the club record.

Beating Oblak to that prize could also be seen as revenge of sorts on Atletico. The club’s fans pelted soft-toy rats at him the first time he played for Real at the Metropolitano in February 2019.

He had only ever been there on loan but they still did not like the fact he ended up at their city rivals. That abuse would have been easier to take were it not for the sense he was still not accepted at Real.

Early in the campaign he conceded five in his first Clasico and Ramos had even liked an Instagram post that included criticism of the £35 million buy from Chelsea.

Courtois (left) and Sergio Ramos did not see eye to eye at the start of the Belgian’s Real career

But now the Madrid pair are hitting form at the right time as they improve in LaLiga

By the start of the second season, Navas was at Paris Saint-Germain and Courtois was the No 1 but he still did not look assured. Those ‘Invisible Courtois’ headlines resulted from statistics that suggested every shot against Real was a goal.

Things came to a head in the Champions League in October 2019, when Madrid went 2-0 down before half-time to Club Bruges and Courtois was blamed for both goals. He did not emerge for the second half. Some claimed he had suffered a panic attack at half-time.

What happened has never been explained. It seems there was no bout of anxiety but perhaps a physical reaction to what had become an intolerable situation for him. 

Courtois first arrived at Real Madrid and struggled alongside fan favourite Keylor Navas (right)

‘Thibaut had a bad stomach and a bad head,’ said Alphonse Areola, explaining why he came on for the second period.

Courtois could have sunk without trace after that. But, after sitting out the next league game, in which Areola made a mistake that led to Madrid conceding a penalty, he was soon back in the team.

In their next Champions League game, he put in a display that will always be remembered as a turning point. ‘Courtois lifts all the doubts’ were the headlines after he helped Madrid beat Galatasaray 1-0.

Courtois claimed he has never doubted his ability as he settles down in Spain and for Belgium

‘I never doubted myself,’ he said. He has not looked back and was hugely important for Real during the run-in as they won the title. More gym work to fill out that 6ft 6in frame and a personal chef who has improved his diet have coincided with better times.

A psychological barrier also seems to have been broken. It takes a big personality to become the star in any position at Madrid and he has shown that. 

Asked by newspaper El Mundo last May if he had ever used a psychologist Courtois said: ‘Mentally I’m very strong, I don’t need a psychologist but I think it can help and we shouldn’t be frivolous about the subject.

Courtois struggled with anxiety attacks at the start of his Madrid career but is more settled

‘That’s why I got annoyed when it was published I had an anxiety attack at half-time against Bruges. There are people who have a bad time with this. There are professionals who cannot take the pressure. Even NBA champion Kevin Love said he suffered from depression.’

He also spoke about the 2014 Champions League final image of him and Ramos on the dressing-room wall. ‘I almost got a hand to it,’ he said of the famous goal.

Having played such a big part in last season’s title win, he can now feel he is no longer the keeper who loses against Real — he is the one they win with.

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