Thanks To Thibaut Courtois, Real Madrid Only Needed One Chance
9:10 AM EDT on May 29, 2022
If there's ever a time for a keeper to produce the performance of a lifetime, it's during the Champions League final. On Saturday, Real Madrid walked out of Paris with the club's 14th European championship thanks, mostly, to one man: Thibaut Courtois.
The string-bean, 6-foot-7 goalie has been one of the best in the world at his position since moving to Madrid in the summer of 2018, but what he did in the Champions League this season, and specifically in the final against Liverpool on Saturday, was without match. Real Madrid might have grabbed the 1-0 victory due to a Vinícius Jr. goal, but more than that, it hoisted the club's favorite trophy because of how well Courtois stopped Liverpool from its own potentially historic goals, over and over.
There was a lot of game to be played around Courtois's record-breaking performance, but the difference in the final score-line can best be explained by the save counts. While Liverpool goalie Alisson only faced one shot on target—and he had no chance to save the shot from Vinícius—Courtois recorded nine saves, the highest total in a final since 2003-2004. That put his total up to 59 saves during the European campaign, the highest number since the same year, when the current format came into play.
Liverpool dominated most of the game's attacking play, consistently pushing Madrid into its own box to defend. These weren't toothless attacks, either, at least not in the first half. Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah consistently put the pressure on Madrid's left side, giving Ferland Mendy and David Alaba a lot to handle. (Luis Diaz, on the other side, had one of his worst games since coming over to Merseyside; props to Dani Carvajal and Federico Valverde for their rugged defensive work there.) The best chances early on came to both of Liverpool's marquee forwards, and against a different goalie, the Pool Boys likely would have been up by multiple goals in the first 45. Unfortunately for them, Courtois did this:
That was just in the first half, too; in the second, Salah twice found himself in a possible scoring position, and twice Courtois shut him out. The Belgian has never been the best distributor of the ball, and he's no one's idea of a sweeper keeper, but he's probably the best shot-stopper in the world, using every inch of his massive frame to deny Liverpool's flurry of shots.
Given how lenient Madrid's defense was for most of the game, Courtois had to be all that and more to give his team a chance to capitalize after Liverpool failed to convert so many attempts. That's when Vinícius came into play, tapping in a goal after running behind an oblivious Trent Alexander-Arnold. The ball, a perfectly weighted sling from Valverde, was even better than the run:
From then on, Madrid was able to relieve some pressure with strong counters while Liverpool rocketed forward to try for an equalizer. In fairness, Madrid should have likely had more than the single shot on target, but Dani Ceballos and Casemiro both flubbed counter-attacks in which they had real chances to score and seal off the game.
They didn't need those would-be goals, though, and that is thanks again to Courtois. The deserving Player of the Match award winner was simply not going to get beat on Saturday, just as he was mostly stout during Madrid's magical run to the final. Sure, Madrid gave up 11 total goals in the three knockout rounds before the final, but without Courtois, it likely would have been more. Courtois, more than anyone on the Madrid defense, did just enough to allow the moments of black magic to come through, and he was great enough to allow that to happen one more time.
Liverpool will rue their many chances, but sometimes, you just get beat by an otherworldly performance. That's the way soccer can go, though it is rare to see the game-changing performance come from a goalkeeper. After all, Tim Howard once had a record 16 saves in a World Cup knockout round against Courtois's own Belgium, but the United States still lost 2-1. For a goalie to truly win a game for his team, he has to be inch-perfect with every single shot headed his way. During 90 strange minutes in Paris, Courtois was just that, and Real Madrid is celebrating thanks to their large No. 1 between the goalposts.