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May 18, 2012

The future's bright for Blues

How many teenagers can say both of their clubs got to a European club competition final in the same season? That's been the scenario for Thibaut Courtois, signed by Chelsea last July from Genk and then packed off in a flash on loan to Atletico Madrid.

The Belgian, who turned 20 two days after the Europa League final, has certainly looked like he belongs at the very top level in this campaign. Replacing David de Gea at the Estadio Vicente Calderon after his move to Manchester United, Courtois hasn't missed a beat. He's played all but one league match this season, and has impressed hugely with his sharp reactions and his sheer presence.

"It's like a dream that's become reality," he told ESPN in the aftermath of Atletico's Europa League final victory over much-lauded domestic rivals Athletic Bilbao. At that point, Atletico could even have sneaked fourth spot in La Liga, and a Champions League place, though Malaga's last day win against Sporting Gijon kept them in fifth place.

That would have provided another twist in Courtois' strange season, with the possibility of Atletico making it back into the Champions League and Chelsea missing out. "It's true," he said. "It's a strange thought." Yet it is clear where his focus lies for now. "Atletico is my club, this year and I think for the next year too, because I really hope to stay here."

As nice as playing every week is, Courtois' mood reflects the positive atmosphere around Atletico since former player Diego Simeone's arrival as coach at Christmas, which has "changed everything", according to the goalkeeper. "We play with a lot more aggressiveness," he pointed out, "and with a strong attitude. That we're here, winning, is thanks to him."

Certainly few would have fancied Atletico's chances of a second Europa League win in three years in the dying embers of Gregorio Manzano's reign. Even a few weeks ago, just as few would have rated Atletico's chances of beating Marcelo Bielsa's thrilling Athletic, who dumped Manchester United out of the competition with such élan.

"It was difficult because they attacked a lot for the first part of the match," Courtois said, "but we defended well and know how to make the most of our chances on the counter-attack. It's very tough against a team that pushes six or seven players forward, but we dealt with it well. All of us, all of the players played a perfect match, I think, especially Diego who played very well, and - naturally - a very good Falcao."

Much as Atletico have improved under new management, it is clear that having a trustworthy goalkeeper and a marksman like Radamel Falcao could easily cover a multitude of sins. "He's a great player of course," Courtois said, "but the rest of the team helps him. We know if we can give him the chances, he can do whatever it takes to score."

Had erstwhile Chelsea coach Andre Villas-Boas' debut season at his new club gone as well as that of Courtois then the Belgian and his prolific team-mate could both have been making the move to London this summer. The Portuguese never hid his admiration of Falcao, a key player in his Porto side that were the 2011 Europa League winners. Meanwhile, rumour persisted that he was sufficiently impressed by Courtois to bring him back from the Spanish capital with a view to replacing Petr Cech at the Bridge.

Luckily, Courtois, who won his first full international cap against France in November, is happy to bide his time. Besides, Chelsea certainly haven't forgotten about him. "The goalkeeping coach (Christophe Lollichon, previously Cech's goalkeeping coach at Rennes) has been over to see me a few times," he recounted. "He's been following me very closely and he wants me back over at Chelsea for a while to do some work there."

The approachable Cech has stayed in the background, preferring to let the youngster express himself. "I saw him once and we talked a bit," Courtois said, "but I see Lollichon and speak to him and he tells me what Cech thinks about my performances and his ideas - so even if it's not direct, I get to know what he's thinking."

Courtois would enjoy a trip to Munich to cheer on his other club, but he is firmly focused on the present. "Normally I would, but Atletico have a trip to Colombia," he said. "Chelsea's my club too, so I'd like to wish Chelsea all the luck in the world for the Champions League. I've had a message from Cech and (Lollichon) telling me how happy they are to be there, and of course I follow how they're getting on. I really hope they win."

You get the feeling that Courtois has Champions League finals of his own waiting for him further down the line. If he continues his current rate of progression, this impressive season will rank as little more than a footnote in a stellar career.

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