Why Courtois, Lunin is Ancelotti’s biggest Champions League headache

For Madridistas, the most wonderful thing about Carlo Ancelotti is the fact that he keeps on winning trophies for their club. For the rest of us, it’s a happy bonus that the sage Italian is blessed with lovely, well-judged, dry wit and humour. It’s a total pleasure having him in Spain.

The latest example of his geniality was on the putative debate about whether Thibaut Courtois, out all season with ACL and meniscus injuries — though the world’s No.1 goalkeeper, in Ancelotti’s view — or Andriy Lunin, genuinely heroic against RB Leipzig and Manchester City and now a LaLiga champion, should start on Saturday at Wembley against Borussia Dortmund. Ancelotti joked: “I love this kind of external debate — particularly on weeks like this when I don’t have much to do,” he said with a grin. “So if I told you who’s starting, then I’d miss out on listening to the next few days of fun debate because that would be it over already!

“It’s no big deal: one of them plays and the other’s on the bench! “Look … it’s actually a tough decision because Lunin deserves to play for lots of reasons as does Courtois, because he’s the best in the world.”

Gentle good fun, in which he punctures the stress with a fun answer: that’s typical Ancelotti, though this is actually an important issue.

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Spoiler alert: unless something unfortunate and unpredictable happens between now and kick off at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, it’ll be the big Belgian, who initially thought he was going to be a professional volleyball player until his early teens, who’ll start in goals for Spain’s new champions. For those obsessed by guessing the XI, whether for fun or bragging rights, because it’s professionally important for those who reckon it gives an edge when it comes to having a little wager on the likely match outcome, that’s the punctuation point on the story. An end in itself.

For everyone else, most particularly the Italian, the Belgian and the Ukrainian, the starting lineup is only the beginning.

I think there’s a general perception that Madrid, by hook or by crook, are almost sure to win this final. I gently favour that idea, but this column is meant quash the concept that Los Blancos‘ record in UEFA finals — they’ve not lost a Champions League final for 43 years and are undefeated in any UEFA knockout final since defeat vs. Aberdeen in the Cup Winners Cup of 1983 — is something they’ve achieved “just because they are Madrid!”

And so Courtois will start, but let’s admit one thing: it’s not a guarantee that this will automatically be “his” evening.

Yes, Courtois is a behemoth amongst goalkeepers: Ancelotti is, in my opinion, justified in saying he’s the very best. Or at least when he’s fully fit and sharp. The Belgian missed about 95% of the season and while his return to match duty hasgi been both successful and impressive, I’d draw your attention to another ACL injury sufferer in the Madrid squad: Éder Militão.

The centre-half returned to the line-up at the beginning of April, looking fully fit and soon becoming a very strong candidate to start against Dortmund. Then, as is often the case for long-term injury returners, his slow, steady return suddenly hit the buffers at Villarreal, in a match where he looked rusty, indecisive and in need of four or five more demanding matches in order to be back to his best.

The Brazilian was fine, showing signs of being a model recovery where everything was going nicely … and then he wasn’t, and they weren’t. Going from 4-1 up at Villarreal and then, in the blink of an eye, being torn apart by a team in yellow to draw 4-4. That simply can’t be allowed on Saturday.

Maybe what happened to Militao won’t happen to Courtois, but it could, and Ancelotti knows this. The ACL injury used to devastate, and indeed end, many top level careers. It doesn’t have the same effect in the modern era, but it remains a beast of a damage to do to your knee. I hope and pray that neither his knee ligaments nor, more pertinently, Courtois’ sharpness, concentration, form and confidence afflict him in what is only his third Champions League final and an opportunity to win his second medal.

Nevertheless, the key takeaway is that Ancelotti needs to use another of his great skills: the ability to be the “player whisperer.”

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Carlo Ancelotti reveals his pre-UCL final routine

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti reveals his pre-Champions League final meal preparation in the lead-up to the game against Borussia Dortmund.

Lunin needs to be told, at the right time, what he already intuits: that his brilliance in the competition this season is only going to win him a space on the bench. It will be a bitter blow, even if expected, but from there the Ukrainian needs to be kept in the right frame of mind. He needs to be kept believing that it’s imperative he remains ready. Not in some patronising “I was born ready, boss!’ thumbs-up manner, either, but really, genuinely 100% at the races and entering the Wembley combat zone with the mindset that it still might quite easily fall to him to win the trophy.

Some examples.

Remember Madrid’s “Novena” (or ninth trophy win)? The 2002 Hampden final which is recalled almost exclusively for Zinedine Zidane’s all-time great volleyed winner?

Cesar Sanchez started that game for Vincente Del Bosque’s side, only to injure himself and come off early. In came young Iker Casillas to produce what Marca this week called “three miracle saves in order to preserve a work-of-art-goal.” At the time, Casillas was disappointed, but he was also ready. both in terms of his mindset and performance. Even if by the time César went off, Casillas wasn’t ready with his keeper-jersey — he delayed play because he insisted on cutting most of the sleeves off with first-aid nail scissors before coming on, because he was so superstitious.

Think about the 2018 Madrid triumph in Kyiv. Liverpool lost Mo Salah to injury after half an hour and took forever to look like they believed they could cope without him. Gareth Bale, genuinely furious to have been benched, came on in the 61st minute and less than two minutes later, was sufficiently “ready” to produce a wonder-goal that might be the equal of Zidane’s at Hampden in terms of beauty, difficulty and impact.

These injury/bench/mentality moments often make huge differences in big, pressure-soaked finals. How well-prepared a disappointed, disaffected player is, despite being dropped, can often make a gigantic impact.

The details are for another column, perhaps, but Xavi Hernández always says that were it not for Andres Iniesta coming on at half time against 10-man Arsenal in the Paris final of 2006 then Barcelona were going to lose a match that they snuck 2-1 in the end. Nor is it wholly unheard of for Courtois to need replacing: I was at the 2019 Champions League match against Club Brugge at the Bernabeu when the Belgians went 2-0 up and the Belgian went off, sick, at half time.

Just as an anecdotal sidebar, Wembley isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a talismanic place for either Madrid or Courtois. Pretty surprisingly, Los Blancos have only ever played there once — losing to Spurs, who were temporary tenants at the HQ of English football in 2017 — and Courtois has suffered far more disappointments than triumphs at Wembley. He lost two Community Shields with Chelsea, missing a penalty in the shootout the second time, was dropped for the 2015 League Cup final having played both legs of the sem final, and lost the 2017 FA Cup Final.

The counter arguments are winning at Spurs in the league when they were lodgers at Wembley and, with Toni Rüdiger, winning the 2018 FA Cup final.

This is all my way of saying: Ancelotti is a fun guy to report on, he will pick Courtois to start against Dortmund, but it will also need to keep Andriy Lunin’s spirits up and intensity levels high. The Ukrainian has a case to argue that he’s as important as any Madrid player in reaching the final, but still has a possibility that he could be as important as anyone in winning it.