Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

Thibaut Courtois emerges as the epitome of Real Madrid's continuing Champions League struggles

A 2-2 draw at home against Club Brugge leaves the 13-time champions bottom of Group A after two games

Zinedine Zidane had waited 518 days between Uefa Champions League nights at the Bernabeu. As he stood for the anthem, and dusk began to bring out the full, magical glow of floodlights on European football’s most fabled arena, he could briefly imagine not much had changed since the last outing.

There, in his starting XI, were most of the trusted warriors who allied with Zidane through his Midas-touch procession to successive triumphs in the competition, in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

He had his favoured midfield three: Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Luka Modric, with Sergio Ramos and Rafael Varane immediately behind, Karim Benzema up front. On May 1, 2018, when Zidane had last overseen a European Cup match in Madrid, Benzema scored twice in a tense semi-final against Bayern Munich to put Madrid through.

That game finished 2-2, featured an excruciating goalkeeping error, and a crushing start for the hosts, a goal conceded within the first 10 minutes.

On Tuesday night, the 2-2 against Club Brugge, there would be many deja vus. But then Zidane is in the business of deja vus. He left the job immediately after he had won his third European Cup, and returned to it last March because in his absence, Madrid collapsed. The president blindly imagined bringing Zidane back would rearrange the furniture to exactly how it used to be and, in a miraculous deja vu, put more European Cups in the trophy cabinet.

Brugge are not Bayern Munich. Yet the way they ambushed Madrid they might as well have been. Dennis Bonaventure, the Nigerian striker, scored the first of two well-worked but inelegantly finished goals with the last strains of the pre-match anthem barely quieted: nine minutes on the clock.

In another deja vu from the 2018 semi-final, there was a goalkeeper error, only this time it was not Bayern’s Sven Ulrich losing his bearings but Thibaut Courtois scrabbling around, late to to block the shot, and as the ball trickled past him, wearing the look of a man who knew the sound he would hear next.

Courtois was whistled loudest by a section of Madrid supporters after Bonaventure’s second goal, the keeper coming off second best in a one-on-one duel in which the striker made a point of trying to deceive Courtois with his eyes while forgetting to keep up his stride pattern. He still scored, with a scuffed effort. Zidane called both Brugge goals “laughable.”

Nobody associated with Madrid was chuckling, least of all Courtois, hurried away at half-time for treatment on a stomach complaint. His replacement, the summer signing Alphonse Areola, quickly made an impeccable one-on-one save and from that point, belief grew around the Bernabeu in a ‘remontada’, one of the stirring comebacks madridistas like to think are part of the club’s soul, especially on European nights.

Sure enough, captain Ramos, with a header, and Casemiro, with another, achieved it, to the relief of Courtois, still in physical pain and wondering where next for him on the Real rollercoaster.

The keeper’s bad luck is to have joined Madrid when they were serial European champions and then to be the last line defence through the subsequent decline. Courtois came to Real to live great European nights at the Bernabeu.

Here’s his last three: a 3-0 defeat to CSKA Moscow; a 4-1 crushing by Ajax in the game that dethroned the champions and hastened the return of Zidane; 45 minutes given the runaround by unfancied Brugge.

“We could point fingers at Thibaut, but we are all responsible, me first of all,” said Zidane, in a less-than-rousing defence of his keeper. Among the manager’s next responsibilities will be to decide whether Areola gets a long spell with the gloves.

Courtois, the coach reported, will recover from his gastric problem. His best form is another matter. The tall Belgian never willingly gives off signs of lowering confidence, but his time at Real has contrived all manner of ways to puncture his self-belief. He arrived to scepticism because he had a past with Atletico Madrid.

It grew once he displaced the popular Keylor Navas. He is now the keeper with the worst home sequence of results in Madrid’s long and distinguished European Cup history.

Having lost 3-0 at Paris Saint-Germain on Matchday 1, Madrid must go next to Galatasaray, hostile territory, with qualification for the knockout phase in genuine jeopardy.

“It’s about concentration, and getting good starts,” insists Zidane. He knows his former champions are being diagnosed with more fundamental flaws than that. “People need to stop saying there’s a lack of desire or ambition. It’s not that we don’t want it enough.”

Updated: October 2, 2019 05:04 PM

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