FootballLa Liga

Roles are reversed for Ter Stegen and Courtois ahead of rescheduled El Clasico

December 17, 2019

GIVEN that timing is everything for a goalkeeper, Barcelona’s Marc Andre Ter Stegen and Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois come into Wednesday's La Liga Clasico in very different moments.

The two months since the game was rescheduled due to the social situation in Catalonia have brought a big swing in the personal situations of both keepers, with Ter Stegen's status having slipped just a little, while Courtois is currently on an upward curve.

The pair go to the Camp Nou with contrasting feelings from the weekend – Ter Stegen was clearly at fault for Real Sociedad's equaliser as Barca drew 2-2 at Anoeta, while Courtois playing a surprise role in the Valencia box before Karim Benzema’s late equaliser as Madrid finished 1-1 at Mestalla.

The idea of Ter Stegen as a problem for Barca, and Courtois as an asset for Madrid, would have been laughed off back in late October when the Clasico was first due to be played. Ter Stegen started the season in excellent form, and he needed to be as Barca’s defence rocked, especially away from home.

An amazing display at Borussia Dortmund nicked them a 0-0 in their Champions League opener, while he was man of match due to both his saves and an assist for Luis Suarez in the 2-0 win at Getafe in September.

Something snapped during Barca’s also very lucky 2-1 win at Slavia Prague the following month, which was just three days before the La Liga Clasico was supposed to be played. “We’ve not played at the level we must,” Ter Stegen said bluntly on Spanish TV that night. “We must talk about some things, between us. There is a lot to improve. Their goal was just one pass and he was straight through.”

Something also changed in Ter Stegen’s form around then. During the next LaLiga game following the postponed Clasico, Ter Stegen’s slow reaction at a free kick allowed Valladolid to equalise, even if Barca went on to win 5-1. Similarly against Mallorca a few weeks back he completely missed a cross to allow Mallorca’s Budimir to score, although Barca won 5-2. The spectacular saves are continuing – witness his point-blank stops from Alvaro Morata and Mario Hermoso in the 1-0 win at Atletico Madrid. But too many mistakes are creeping in.

Besides palming the ball out to Alexander Isak for La Real’s equaliser on Saturday, Ter Stegen was also caught out under a corner as Sergio Busquets pulled down Diego Llorente for Mikel Oyarzabal's penalty opener. By one count the German has been at least partly responsible for five of the 20 goals Barca have conceded this year. It has started to worry some around the Camp Nou, with Sport headlining a piece this week ‘Ter Stegen is human after all’.

Courtois would presumably sympathise with such a negative take on his counterpart's season so far, given his own eventful 2019/20 to date. His campaign got off to a happy start with rival Keylor Navas leaving for Paris Saint-Germain in August, but that left a lingering discontent among some Blanco fans and pundits, especially as Zinedine Zidane’s team went 13 games without keeping one clean sheet.

The negativity boiled over in early October when Courtois conceded twice in the first half against Club Bruges at the Bernabeu – and was loudly whistled even though neither goal was particularly his fault. He was substituted at half-time for what Zidane said was “stomach problems”. But some very unkind local pundits claimed he’d had an attack of “anxiety” and called for back-up Alfonse Areola to displace him, with the Clasico then looming.

That idea went away when Areola had a shocker at home to Granada in La Liga, and Courtois soon returned to the XI and went on a run of five consecutive clean sheets through November. All was still not completely rosy though, and a mix up with Raphael Varane helped Paris Saint Germain get back to 2-2 at the Bernabeu, a game in which Keylor was cheered by his former club’s fans.

Sunday at Valencia could now mark a real moment for Courtois’ Madrid career. Besides his spectacular towering header leading to Benzema’s 95th minute equaliser, he also kept his team in the game with two excellent saves from Los Che youngsters Ferran Torres and Manu Vallejo. Monday’s column from AS pundit Tomas Roncero, a bellwether for ups and downs among Madrid's most emotional fans, was headlined ‘Heroic Courtois’.

“We always play for the three points, but in the end getting one in the last-minute feels like a win and we go to the Camp Nou full of energy,” Courtois himself told Real Madrid TV. “We all chip in with what we can. I made two good saves in the second half and then helped from the corner.”

Given the hectic nature of Clasicos in recent years, both keepers are likely to be busy on Wednesday at the Camp Nou. Two months ago most blaugrana fans would have seen having Ter Stegen as an advantage, but maybe los Blancos are now happier to have Courtois on their side.