Thibaut Courtois thinks he deserves the Ballon d’Or - stopping Erling Haaland could prove his case

·4-min read

It wasn’t all that long ago that Thibaut Courtois was bemoaning being only the seventh-best footballer on the planet. Not the seventh-best goalkeeper - he had top spot in that award sewn up - but seventh overall.

His case was as routine as it was sensible: we’ve won everything, I’ve played a huge part, I should be considered as one of the greatest - or, in his eyes, the greatest. Ultimately his reasons counted for plenty, just for the wrong player: teammate Karim Benzema picked up the Ballon d’Or in October.

Since then, Courtois has suffered the indignity of being No1 for perhaps the biggest underperformers on the grandest stage - Belgium at the World Cup - but with Real Madrid he continues to be in the spotlight with pivotal performances and in the running for major honours.

While a domestic title is out of his grasp this term, retaining Los Blancos’ European crown is very much on the cards.

But to do that, he’ll have to face the biggest test of all for any goalkeeper this year, a challenge which, if passed, might well ensure his name is deservedly even higher up the rankings when awards season rolls around again: stop Erling Haaland.

“I see the Ballon d’Or as impossible to win. You win La Liga and you win the Champions League, your team wins thanks to your saves... and you only finish seventh. At least they created the trophy for best goalkeeper. With a huge difference, the best goalkeeper in the world,” Courtois noted late last year.

“What I’m not happy about is that [I] was not included in the final podium for the Ballon d’Or. I still don’t understand what those who choose this award are based on.

“Without a good goalkeeper you don’t win a trophy. And in football awards, sometimes we forget that. People vote faster for a striker who scores goals than by a goalkeeper. Too bad. But we will continue to show that goalkeepers are really important.”

There are some who, rightly or wrongly, are already proclaiming the Real Madrid vs Manchester City semi-final to be the real final. AC and Inter Milan will offer their own arguments against that in time, but there’s no doubt as to which clubs have the better squads, the greater expectation...the best and most in-form strikers.

And Haaland sits above all of them this season, even above Benzema, after smashing in 51 goals in 46 games.

Courtois, meanwhile, has been a busy performer at the Bernabeu. Rarely a team which chases wins by being defensively solid first, Los Blancos have only the fourth-best goals against record this season. Courtois isn’t an ever-present, having had a couple of injury issues this term, and he’s unlikely to be thrilled with his own performance last time out either. A 2-0 defeat to Real Sociedad saw him embarrassed by a wayward backpass, Take Kubo given an easy tap-in, before being beaten at his near post by Ander Barrenetxea for the second.

The 30-year-old is no stranger to critics and says he’s held to a higher regard and commented on more harshly for the exact reason that he’s one of the best in the world.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

He’ll need to be, for this double-header. Haaland has recently been playing an increasing role in the build-up play for City, feeding others running in behind and linking superbly in the deep areas. That means that the threat to Real’s hopes of reaching the final will come from multiple angles of course, but it’s still Haaland who will be the primary danger, Haaland who - if the tie is tight and chances are sporadic - will be most relied-upon to bury the one or two which fall his way.

Courtois has proven himself one of the world’s top stoppers, over and over. His reach is immense, his bravery and quick feet off his line an important aspect of his game and his mental strength is as impressive as his shot-stopping capacity.

But he isn’t infallible. He, like all players, has bad games, or even just occasions where he’s not quite at his best. The last-16 first leg at Anfield was a case in point, with an error-strewn outing ultimately not proving too costly due to Real’s strength at the other end of the pitch.

And here once more it could prove the same. Real Madrid, with Benzema, Vinicius Jr, Luka Modric and all their other offensive-minded stars will fancy themselves to win a shootout across 180 minutes, if that’s what it comes to.

Ultimately, going through to the final in Istanbul is all that matters. But for Courtois individually and his simultanoues grand plans of proving he can be not just the best goalkeeper but the very best footballer in the world, one task will go a long way to achieving both objectives. The problem is, as has already been shown on more than 50 occasions this season, stopping Haaland is a notoriously difficult thing to do.