Why Thibaut Courtois Must Return to Chelsea This Summer

Dan LeveneFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2014

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 22:  Thibaut Courtois of Club Atletico de Madrid tries to punch clear as Gary Cahill of Chelsea heads the ball during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Chelsea at Vicente Calderon Stadium on April 22, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Three Chelsea goalkeepers featured in the first leg Champions League semi final against Atletico—one in his 20s, one in his 30s and one in his 40s.

Though Petr Cech, 31, spent the least time on the pitch, hobbling away with a dislocated shoulder after 18 minutes, it was the 21-year-old Thibaut Courtois, on loan at Atletico, who had least to do.

Seldom was he ever challenged, and he had a game that did not befit the amount of controversy and newsprint that has been devoted to his presence in this tie.

The busiest keeper, by far, was the ultra-experienced Mark Schwarzer, 41, at the other end—who now looks certain to start the second leg at Stamford Bridge.

Courtois, coming to the end of his third season on-loan at the Vicente Calderon, has blossomed from a keeper of great potential into one of great achievement.

As each of his two previous seasons in Madrid has neared its end, there has been a clamour among Chelsea fans to bring him back.

But never has it been stronger than now.

Cech's injury, a medium-term concern that looks likely to end his season, is just the latest in a series of reasons some give to bring the young Belgian home.

The Czech Republic international is certainly injury prone—though that should not be seen as a negative, but as an indication of the way he has put his body (and even his life) on the line for Chelsea over the last decade.

Cech has been playing at the top level since a very young age and seems unlikely to battle on to the great advanced ages that many goalkeepers seem to reach.

The punishment his frame has been through has left him damaged in so many ways, and one suspects the latter half of his 30s will be a time for quiet reflection, rather than leaping about on some foreign field.

His mistakes have increased in recent times—though he still makes fewer in each game than most of his team-mates. David Luiz and Ramires almost always manage more howlers per 90 minutes than Cech—though such mistakes tend to be more costly and noticeable for a goalkeeper.

His time is far from up, but there is a sense that a transition will be needed soon.

Schwarzer is here for a year only. He has generally looked good when called upon, though it seems unlikely he will be playing at 42—for Chelsea at least.

And the other options are scant: Hilario, 38, looks to be heading for a coaching role with the club; Jamal Blackman, 21, is totally untested and looks as far away from the first team as he has ever been.

So to Courtois.

He is clearly at the top of his game—on the brink of creating history with Atletico as the first side to break the Barcelona/Real Madrid dominance of La Liga in a decade.

There is a fear among some Chelsea fans that if he spends a fourth season in Spain, he will become too attached—somehow forgetting where his real loyalties lie.

When he speaks publicly, that is not something that comes over. He seems professional, and very ambitious.

Atletico are desperate to keep him, and that could be a key deciding factor in whether Chelsea's pretty-open pursuit of Diego Costa is ultimately successful.

But Chelsea need their young star: for back-up, for continuity, for the betterment of the team. And they need him this summer.