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Jul 24, 2014

Head-to-Head: Courtois or Cech?

Thibaut Courtois has been on loan at Atletico Madrid since 2011 but could get his chance at Chelsea this season.

Thibaut Courtois has yet to make an appearance for Chelsea since joining from Genk in 2011, but he is back at Stamford Bridge ahead of the new campaign and is not content with being second choice behind Petr Cech. So what does Jose Mourinho do? Does he put his faith in the 22-year-old or remain loyal to Cech? It's a difficult issue for Mourinho to settle, and our ESPN FC bloggers for Chelsea, Phil Lythell and Mark Worrall, have their say.

Cech vs. Courtois -- who is your Chelsea No. 1 this season?

Phil Lythell: As tough decisions go, this is particularly hard, with the head and the heart locked in a pretty fierce battle over the two claims to the goalkeeping throne. Ultimately, though, sentimentality has to yield to pragmatism, and that means Courtois taking over between the sticks.

It might seem disloyal to remove Cech from the team considering the sterling service he has given the club during its period of unprecedented success, but on current form the young Belgian has the edge.

Mark Worrall: Call me a sentimental fool, Phil, but pragmatism can wait another year. While Courtois is a young player of outstanding ability, I would like to see Mourinho afford Cech the opportunity to beat David James' Premier League record of 170 clean sheets. It took James 572 appearances with five clubs to achieve the landmark; Cech's clean sheet tally of 161 has been reached in just 326 EPL games and all for Chelsea.

Courtois may be the young pretender, but Cech is good enough to sit on the throne a while yet.

How highly do you rate Courtois, and what does he need to work on?

PL: Mark makes a good case for Cech, who certainly has done nothing wrong, though Courtois is an exceptional talent with few flaws, something that is almost unheard of for a goalkeeper at the tender age of 22.

If there is any area of weakness, it is potentially his judgement of the high ball. He is confident both coming for and claiming crosses, though on a couple of occasions he has seemed uncertain when the ball has dropped out of the heavens. In the Premier League this could be exposed early on.

MW: I agree with you there, Phil; it's hard to fault Courtois' game, and there's no reason to suggest he won't adapt well to the rigours of Premier League football. He has a commanding presence in the penalty area and looks confident under pressure. He's agile and a fine shot-stopper -- be it with hands, chest, legs or feet.

What does Courtois need to work on? Well, he is coming to play for Chelsea, the Kings of the King's Road -- so he might want to do something about his hairstyle. It took Fernando Torres a couple of years to sort his coiffure out, but he got there in the end.

Doesn't Cech deserve to start? He's hardly past it ...

PL: It is hard to give an honest answer without sounding ungrateful and heartless, but I would install Courtois as No. 1 immediately.

Cech has not fully recovered from the dislocated shoulder that curtailed his activity last season, so common sense would see the fresher, fitter, younger man named in the starting lineup against Burnley in the opening fixture of the season.

MW: Carlo Ancelotti employed an interesting strategy for his senior goalkeepers at Real Madrid, playing Diego Lopez in La Liga games and Iker Casillas in the Champions League and Copa del Rey competitions.

Mourinho could adopt a similar approach at Chelsea. Cech could get the nod for league fixtures -- breaking James' record and sailing off into the sunset in May -- while Courtois could bed in at Stamford Bridge and feature in cup matches. Success across the board for the Blues would see both men getting significant game time.

Petr Cech is Chelsea's most decorated goalkeeper, with three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, the Champions League and Europa League to his name.

What did you make of Courtois on loan at Atleti and at the World Cup?

PL: When Chelsea paid seven million pounds for a hitherto unknown Belgian goalkeeper, there were a few eyebrows raised, though his loan spell has erased any question marks.

Even before his performances are analysed, his statistics and achievements are formidable with him securing both the Europa League and La Liga titles as well as twice winning the Zamora Trophy for being the most miserly stopper in Spain. He then went 21 international games without losing until Argentina ended that run in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

While Belgium ultimately disappointed as a team, Courtois was one of the few individuals from that squad who lived up to the pre-tournament billing.

MW: I agree with Phil; seven million was a lot of money to pay for a young goalkeeper, but Courtois' three-year loan spell with Los Rojiblancos made a man of the boy from Genk. He has already established himself as Belgium's No. 1 goalkeeper and was an integral part of his country's World Cup run.

What have you made of Mourinho's handling of the situation?

PL: He has done a pretty good job in what is a delicate situation. The Special One might not be known for his diplomacy on the public relations front, but his man management skills are regarded as the best around, so it is hardly a surprise to see the situation develop without too much controversy.

Mourinho's diplomacy has been welcome, especially in light of a few outspoken words from Courtois, who has made it clear in interviews that he sees himself as a first-team regular. Perhaps the most credit should go to Cech, who has kept his own counsel throughout and resisted the urge to assert his dominance from a position of undeniable strength.

Having said that, the season has yet to begin, so there could be fireworks depending on whose nose is put out of joint.

MW: Courtois has not been afraid to speak his mind and insist he is worthy of a first-team slot at Chelsea -- the folly of youth. Mourinho knows best, and he moved swiftly to quell the speculation such grumblings initiated.

There has always been plenty of talk about player power at Stamford Bridge, but right now there is only one man calling the shots in the dressing room, as Juan Mata and David Luiz, among others, will testify. Mourinho has managed Courtois' situation effectively and professionally to date, and there is no reason to suppose he won't do so in the future.