London, August 8, 2018 - Chelsea defeated Lyon on penalties in their last pre-season friendly before this weekend’s big Premier League kick-off, but all the focus around West London was on the Blues’ number one and how the Thibaut Courtois saga will pan out in the next few days.
Unlikely hero - Robert Green had notched up the precise total of zero appearances for previous club Huddersfield, but proved Chelsea’s hero in last night’s International Champions Cup match against Olympique Lyonais, making the only save of the penalties that followed the less than spectacular 0-0 draw. Pape Cheikh Diop was the only man to fail to convert his spot-kick, but the real drama took place off the pitch.
Penalty heroics aside, Green, a 38-year-old former England keeper was a strange transfer even though the future of Chelsea’s number one, and the best goalkeeper at the World Cup, Thibaut Courtois, was far from certain even then. The last barrier of the third-placed Belgians had made no secret of his desire to move to Real Madrid, even though he had established himself as potentially world class at cross-town rivals Atlético.
Third goalkeeper? - Nevertheless, what gap did Green fill? At best he was to be third or fourth choice whether Courtois stayed or not. Green’s was a transfer that was so far below the radar that not even Chelsea scouts, let alone new manager Maurizio Sarri had recommended it, but Green had a laugh, if not necessarily the last one last night. Given a few minutes at the end after Marcin Bulka was given more than three quarters of the match, Green set up the win with his penalty save – his previous contributions had been erratic.
Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi started, but it was his talismanic compatriot Eden Hazard who scored the decisive penalty. Ruben Loftus-Cheek went close a couple of times and impressed, but the real story was off the pitch.
Awol - Courtois’ desire to leave is clear, but the steps he’s taking to bring about that move is alienating the club and fans. Courtois missed the Community Shield on Sunday, and was absent at training at Cobham on Monday. He remained absent last night, even though talks with Sarri were supposed to take place. Sarri has already said that he only wants players who are motivated.
On Tuesday Sarri didn’t talk about Courtois, but an absence is as good as a thousand words. Courtois could run his contract down and leave before long – it’s unlikely he’ll renew at Chelsea now, so the choices are limited. Keep a player whose ‘head has been turned’, who doesn’t appear to want to stay in west London while his family are in Madrid or cash in.
English transfer window shut - However, it’s not quite that simple. The transfer window in England ends this week, but players can still be signed from English clubs. The Premier League starts this weekend, so there’s precious little time to sign a replacement, and other clubs know of Chelsea’s predicament. Everyone knows Courtois wants to leave, and that Real Madrid usually get their man, although David de Gea notably slipped through their fingers.
If Courtois leaves without a replacement being signed, former Manchester City reserve keeper, Willy Caballero, will likely be the number one, with Bulka and Green as back-ups – hardly options likely to thrill Sarri. If he stays, Chelsea have a top keeper who would be unhappy, but that may be the best option for the Blues, even if that means he ends up going for nothing. The alternative would be to be held to ransom, yet that appears to be what is going to happen.
Options - The obvious area to trawl for a new number one is the relegated clubs – Stoke City for one. Jack Butland, although recovering from an injury was an intriguing possibility. Keen to challenge Jordan Pickford for England’s number one spot, Butland needs top level exposure. Chelsea would certainly fit that requirement, but does Butland? Talent and future potential, no question, but how will cope with his injury? Is he prone? Has it affected his confidence? Can Stoke afford to sell him so close to the end of the window? Is £25m too big a risk, or a bargain?
A goalkeeper abroad - While the problem for Stoke is obvious there are other options. If Chelsea bought abroad, that selling club would have more time to find a replacement. Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga is de Gea’s understudy for Spain, but only has one cap for his country, but he hasn’t been signed yet, and time is running out. Sarri knows his qualities, having managed him on loan at Napoli, but at 23, and not yet first choice for his country, can he really be worth more than double the man rated the best at the World Cup just three weeks ago with just three years between them?