Saturday 21 April 2018

No jesting in the court of Courtois

Chelsea’s Belgian 'keeper, a fan of Shane Long, knows the pressure is on

Belgium's goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois Picture: Reuters
Belgium's goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois Picture: Reuters
Aidan Fitzmaurice

Aidan Fitzmaurice

It's stating the obvious to someone like Thibaut Courtois that an expensively-assembled, much-touted and well-trained team does not always go on to do what it set out to do.

Last season at club level was a disaster for Courtois and everyone associated with Chelsea FC, who began the new term quoted at very short odds to retain their Premier League title... and we all know what happened next.

The Blues goalkeeper endured great pressure at his club last season as Chelsea (including two of the biggest stars in the Belgian football world, Courtois and Hazard) flipped and flopped, and the same burden is on Courtois and his Belgian team-mates now in France, with this classy bunch of big names and big stars under fierce scrutiny from supporters and media back home after that loss to Italy in their opening group game.

Belgium arrived in France as potential dark horses to win the tournament (as they did, and failed to do in Brazil two years ago) and now, they are on the verge of ignominy, aware that defeat to Ireland today would add another crushing blow to the one they suffered in their failure at the 2014 World Cup.

Ireland's players at Italia '90 had to queue to use a payphone to get news from home, but the modern player like Courtois (1.45million followers on twitter, if that means anything) simply look at their handset to know what people are thinking, and the keeper is aware that, as far as the Belgian nation are concerned, the Red Devils have sinned.

“If we are at our best level as a side then people say we are one of the best. Suddenly when you lose you are one of the worst. That’s football," he shrugs.

"We are professionals and we are relaxed about that. We know the attributes we have and we are going to show that.”

They'll need to show a lot more class than the likes of Portugal have shown so far in Euro 2016, Courtois clearly understanding (his Premier League experiences last season again) reminding him that an underdog (like Ireland) can have his day.

“We’ve seen in the [Euro 2016]] matches already that there aren’t any easy games and games are being won towards the end. If you look in the Premier League the top sides don’t always win easily against those lower down so we must not think it will be an easy game," he says.

"Yes, we are favourites but I am hoping we get a good result and we come way from here with the win.”

Shane Long scored (albeit in a defeat) for Southampton against Courtois' Chelsea in the season just gone. The Belgian keeper didn't name-check Daryl Murphy or anyone else in his pre-match press conference here in Bordeaux yesterday, only the boy from Gortnahoe, but the fact that he has conceded against Long means that this Belgian's words are not empty.

“At first sight you see Shane Long and he is just a short striker but he is good in the air, quick and dangerous and he scores goals," Courtois says.

"It is tough to compare him to our players, but he is at the same level. He has scored a lot of goals at Southampton and we need to keep an eye on him.”

Belgium could turn on the style today and rip into Ireland, or they could grind out a win, as they did the last time we met (in a play-off for the 1998 World Cup), or they could be put to the sword. But they do need to improve on poor recent form, their performances in pre-tournament friendly games a cause of concern which was then justified in that defeat to Italy on Monday, Courtois in focus after conceding eight goals in his last five games.

“During the five friendly matches I conceded more goals," he says as a deflection. "Things were quite good against Italy. The one goal they scored was a shame, an individual mistake, but for the rest Italy didn’t really have many chances and we were trying to score when we conceded the second. So we have confidence for today.”

At least he's used to disappointments.

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