The Best in the World. Of all the players to have appeared in all the game’s changing positions down the years, how many safely through the Stamford Bridge doors could have staked a claim to such greatness?
Didier Drogba showed more than flashes of the extraordinary when displaying his unique brand of centre forward play right until the last kick of his Blues career.
Ashley Cole? Even now, England’s centurion would likely feature in a definitive full-back conversation, albeit with the phrase ‘on his day’ tagged onto any utterance involving his name.
Hell, Frank Lampard posed shoulder-to-shoulder with Ronaldinho on FIFA’s podium in 2005.
But in Thibaut Courtois – the 6’6” goalkeeper, multi-linguist and evidently all-round good egg from a family of volleyballers in Bree, North-East Belgium – Roman Abramovich’s crack team of talent spotters may have raised the bar, this time without moving the goalposts.
Some recruits have achieved great things (see the gentleman with a role named after him, sat in the PSG dugout this month). Others have gone on to even greater; one glance at Arjen Robben’s unimpeded marauding brings tears to the eye. But no player identified under the present regime has enjoyed praise on a par with that which our man on-loan at Atletico Madrid is being ever-more-frequently lavished.
Granted, it was one of Courtois’ temporary team-mates in Madrid, Filipe Luis, who metaphorically stapled the “Best Goalkeeper in the World” label onto the Copa Del Rey clincher’s gloves following success over rivals Real in the 2013 Final.
Club legend Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink did afford Manuel Neuer similarly elevated status when touting Courtois as next season’s first choice for Chelsea, while Barcelona boss Tata Martino merely acclaimed him as “one of the best”.
And, yes, since signing a five-year contract for £9m from Racing Genk in July 2011, the only reason last season’s winner of the Ricardo Zamora Trophy in Spain, awarded for conceding fewest goals per game, has found himself waved through by SW6 security has been fitness-related.
Still, as he’s not 22 until May, it’s safe to say you’ve read worse CVs. Especially considering his Belgian title-win at 19.
Meanwhile, Petr Cech’s invitation into such exalted circles has become slower to arrive with each passing year, in stark contrast with his deployment atop the Chelsea team sheet, which has quickened with every inferior understudy introduced since Carlo Cudicini was permanently seen off in 2009.
Ten years into the Czech’s tenure, it may be time for a shake-up between the sticks. Despite Barcelona’s apparent misgivings over his adversary’s footballing ability, salt must be pinched when seeking counsel where baseline ball control is often prioritized above basic command of the 18-yard area. Once given the opportunity to compete with Cech on the lush surfaces at Cobham, the inevitable gulf would surely render the Catalans’ appraisal redundant. Lest we forget, Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet has already been displaced at international level.
Besides, not many can boast winning both Europe’s top competitions in one campaign, as Courtois’ employers did between them in 2011-12. This season sees similar faces among the survivors, except reputations have now been reversed, with current Europa League holders Chelsea approaching their Champions League semi-final first leg this week as underdogs to La Liga leaders Atletico.
Much controversy has surrounded the youngster’s role in the tie, together with UEFA’s attitude towards it, the regulators releasing a conveniently-timed statement deeming the clubs’ agreement over any appearance void, at odds with the silence preceding 2012’s Super Cup Final and its stance on Mo Bangura’s participation for Elfsborg against owners Celtic last year.
UEFA inconsistency is to be expected, of course. Far more unpredictable is how the Chelsea hierarchy face the conundrum concerning their future rearguard. With changes afoot in defence, as warriors of old close on retirement, any new-look backline will require a strong hand to guide them. Some would argue there is no substitute for experience; others may contend there is no substitute like experience.
It will be intriguing to watch how Courtois’ handling of the looming spotlight affects his place in the Londoners’ plans, not to mention the esteem in which he is held in Spain and beyond.
From here, this budding stopper could prove a handy makeweight in a deal for Diego Costa, Atletico’s deadly striker, allegedly craved with a view to filling the Blues’ widest weak spot. Otherwise, he could attract a sizeable transfer fee, thereby aiding our escape from FFP’s pen-pushing style-crampers.
Alternatively, this incredible talent, sponsored by the Blues, nurtured by Los Rojiblancos and seemingly vaunted by everyone he encounters, could yet be brought back to these shores to become the most successful acquisition in over a century of famed football and investment in West London.
In all probability, it will be up to the Best Manager in the World to decide.