If there’s ever a time for a defender to make a lifetime performance, it’s time for a Champions League final. On Saturday, Real Madrid pulled out of the club’s 14th European Championship from Paris, thanks in large part to one man: Thibaut Courtois.
The string-bean, 6-foot-7 goalie has been one of the best in the world since moving to Madrid in the summer of 2018, but what he has done in the Champions League this season and especially in the final was Saturday without a match for Liverpool. Real Madrid may have won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Vinicius Jr., but more than that, it blew away the club’s favorite trophy as Courtois repeatedly stopped Liverpool from their potential historic goals.
There was a lot of play around Cortois’ record-breaking performance, but the difference in the final score-line can best be explained by the calculation of the save. Although Liverpool goalkeeper Alison Target faced only one shot — and had no chance to save the shot from Vinicius — Cortois recorded nine saves, the highest in the final since 2003-2004. That’s up to her 59 savings during the European campaign, the highest number since the same yearWhen the current format comes into play.
Liverpool dominated most of the offensive game of the game, consistently pushing Madrid into its own box. These were not toothless attacks, at least not in the first half. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah constantly pushed to the left of Madrid, giving Ferland Mendi and David Alaba a lot to handle. (Luis Diaz, on the other hand, has had one of his worst games since coming to Merseyside; there Dani Carvajal and Federico Valverde props for their tough defensive work.) At 45, he was leading by more than one goal. Unfortunately for them, Cortois did this:
That too was right in the first half; In the second, Salah twice finds himself in a potential scoring position and twice Cortois dismisses him. The Belgian has never been the best distributor of the ball, and he has no idea who a sweeper keeper is, but he probably uses every inch of his huge frame to deny a shot to Liverpool, the best shot-stopper in the world.
Considering how flexible Madrid’s defense was for most of the game, Courtois had to do more to give his side a chance to capitalize after Liverpool failed to convert in many attempts. That’s when Vinicius got into the game, tapping a goal after running behind the forgotten Trent Alexander-Arnold. The ball, a perfectly weighted sling from Valverde, was better than the run:
Since then, Madrid have been able to ease some of the pressure with strong counters as Liverpool went on to try to equalize. Fairly, Madrid’s goal should have been more than a single shot, but both Dani Seballos and Casimiro jumped into the counter-attack to give them a real chance to score and stop the game.
They didn’t need those goals, though, and thanks again to Cortoya. The winner of the Player of the Match award was not going to lose on Saturday, just as he was mostly tough during Madrid’s magical race in the final. Sure, Madrid have conceded a total of 11 goals in three knockout rounds before the final, but without Cortoia, it probably would have been even more so. More than anyone else on the Madrid defense, Cartwright did enough to allow the moments of black magic to come, and he was great enough to let it happen again.
Liverpool will waste a lot of their chances, but sometimes, you are simply defeated by another world performance. This is how football can go, although it is rare to see a game-changing performance from a goalkeeper. After all, Tim Howard once saved a record 16 against Cortois’ own Belgium in the knockout round of the World Cup, but the United States still lost 2-1. For a goalkeeper to truly win a game for his team, he needs to be inch-perfect with his every shot. During the 90 odd minutes in Paris, Courtois was just that, and Real Madrid are celebrating thanks to the big No. 1 in their goalposts.