Sport Soccer

Saturday 21 October 2017

Courtois in dreamland as Atletico eye double

Barcelona 1 Atletico Madrid 1

Diego Godin of Club Atletico de Madrid celebrates after scoring his goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on May 17, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain
Diego Godin of Club Atletico de Madrid celebrates after scoring his goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on May 17, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain
Jose Manuel Pinto of FC Barcelona clears the ball under pressure from Joao Miranda of Atletico de Madrid during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on May 17, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain
Alexis Sanchez of FC Barcelona scores the opening goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on May 17, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain
Adrian Lopez of Club Atletico de Madrid is tackled by Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on May 17, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain
Diego Costa of Atletico de Madrid competes for the ball with Gerard Pique of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on May 17, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain
Diego Simeone gets the bumps
Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois reacts after their title-clinching draw at the Nou Camp

Pete Jenson

Thibaut Courtois continued to celebrate winning the Spanish League yesterday three years to the day from when he celebrated lifting the Belgian League with Genk.

His comments, as the realisation began to sink in late on Saturday, suggested that he now accepts that next year the challenge will be the Premier League with Chelsea.

"I will miss all this the day I have to say goodbye," he said still wet with the cava that had been sprayed all around him on the pitch at the Nou Camp after Atletico Madrid's draw with Barcelona clinched the La Liga title.

"I have built up a very good relationship with the supporters in the three years that I have been here. I never imagined this would happen when I arrived at the club," he said.

Courtois was beaten in the first half by a shot from Alexis Sanchez that no goalkeeper in the world would have saved, but that goal was not enough to deprive him of the coveted Ricardo Zamora Trophy for the goalkeeper who has let in fewest goals this season. He was winning the award for the second year running.

The Belgian also passed another landmark – it was the seventh consecutive game in which he had shut out Lionel Messi.

Petr Cech had done so six times but the man who may well take his place in Chelsea's first XI next season has now surpassed that record.

Diego Godin's headed goal early in the second half ensured Atletico finished top of the league by three clear points, winning their first title in 18 years and interrupting the duopoly Barcelona and Real Madrid have held on La Liga for the last decade.

The achievement is even greater considering those two clubs have budgets five times the size of Atletico's.

Their current lofty status is a far cry from the troubled club Courtois joined on loan from Chelsea in 2011. Atletico had finished seventh the previous season, shipping 53 goals.

His first coach at Atletico was Gregorio Manzano, a former psychology teacher who had never played professionally.

SACKED

Manzano lasted four months in the job, sacked in December with the team four points above the relegation zone and knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third division Albacete.

Former Atletico midfielder and idol Diego Simeone was called in to perform emergency surgery, but no one expected him to deliver the club the Europa League and a fifth-place finish in his first half season.

A third-place finish in La Liga and an epic Copa del Rey final victory over Real Madrid came next.

Now Atletico are league champions and will meet their neighbours again on Saturday on the biggest club stage of all: the Champions League final.

"It was unthinkable to achieve all of those things," said Courtois. "When Simeone arrived, he made it very hard to score against us. "He made this system, he knew how to make the team play. It starts with good organisation, good defence with no risk, and then a good counter-attack.

"You can see what we have achieved. It is a beautiful thing. It is more than a fairytale."

If Courtois' star is rising, Messi's continues to crash to earth. Barcelona made much of their coup last week in persuading him to sign a new contract but he was whistled off on Saturday having been among the worst of Barça's performers.

It was an awful display from the home side, not becoming a team who had the league title in their sights before kick-off and practically in their hands at half-time.

There is actually very little "new" about Messi's latest deal.

His contract will still run to 2018, his buyout clause stays at €250m (£200m) and, despite earlier reports to the contrary, it seems even his image rights remain 100 per cent his.

There is a slight pay rise that, club sources suggest, puts him on around €20m a season, and as a consequence just above Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.

It seemed to matter last week that he had once again become the best-paid player on the planet.

It seemed to matter a lot less at the end of the game on Saturday night after he had shown, as he has done many times this season, that he is no longer the world's best player. Whether he regains that mantle at the World Cup, time will tell.

For Courtois there is a World Cup and a European Cup final to look forward to. "I want to win next week in Lisbon (against Real Madrid) and then I'm off to Brazil.

"The last three years have been incredible," he said.

He was hugged by Diego Costa at the final whistle – the Brazil-born Spain international's tears after being taken off in the first half having turn to smiles by the end.

Costa may well be joining Courtois at Stamford Bridge next season. Before that he will hope to play a bigger part in the Champions League final than he was able to do in the league title play-off.

However, the hamstring that forced him to limp off at Nou Camp after only 15 minutes looks likely to rule him out of Saturday's game. The tears he shed on the Atletico bench certainly seemed to suggest he is beginning to fear the worst.

Arda Turan was also taken off in the first half but is more optimistic about making the final.

"In no moment did I think that the game was getting away from us," said Simeone, who will surely now win FIFA Manager of the Year, having not even made the top 10 last season.

"The bigger the challenge the more my players have given me. It's been 18 years since we have won the league but there has been a gradual realisation this season that we could win it," he added.

According to Simeone, his side had a helping hand from Luis Aragones, Atletico's most successful manager and top scorer, who died earlier this year.

"I have to say thank you to the players and the people who placed their trust in us. And to Luis who I'm sure was in the box defending with us in the second half."

Simeone's father, Carlos, was ushered to the front of the Nou Camp at the end of the game so his son could embrace him.

"I was concerned to see him crying because he never cries," said the Atletico coach.

There was no opportunity to ask what the Barça coach, Gerardo Martino, said to his players at half-time because he took no questions post-game and simply confirmed that he was stepping down. Luis Enrique should be named as his replacement this week. (© Independent News Service)

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