We've been looking in on the future of Chelsea for the last week and a half, and today will see us make the last entry in the 2012 edition of our top prospects list. The No. 1 player in the WAGNH community vote will also be the top Chelsea prospect overall, narrowly edging out his Belgian teammate Kevin De Bruyne for that spot. At number one we have:
Courtois came through the Genk academy, and took advantage of an early season injury that opened the door for him at 18-years old. Michael Emenalo (then a scout) and Piet de Visser had been closely following Genk youngster Kevin De Bruyne for several years, and got to witness Courtois' early exploits as the number one keeper first hand. It was no surprise when Michael Emenalo's first signing as technical director was a youngster from Genk, it was certainly a surprise to most that the youngster was Courtois.
Courtois had made one appearance for Genk ahead of his breakout season, but managed to start 44 times in total during the 2010/11 campaign. Genk won the Jupiler Pro League that season, and Courtois was a major reason why. He was sent to Atletico Madrid almost as soon as Chelsea completed the signing, where he was likely to be replacing David De Gea.
Thibaut has seen plenty of time to hone his craft over the past season and a half, and one could certainly make the argument that he's been the best goalkeeper in La Liga over the entirety of that span of time. He started 54 times for them in 2011/12, as Atletico Madrid won the Europa League title. He's been used less this season though, as Atletico decided not to use him in the group stage of the Europa League and risk an injury in the process. He's been in sensational for in La Liga however, and looked good as Atletico pounded his parent club to win the Super Cup at the beginning of the season.
Courtois has also cemented himself as Belgium's number one goalkeeper now, and his excellent play is one of the reasons they are performing so well in this go-around at qualifying for the World Cup. He's started all four qualifiers so far, allowing only a single goal to get by him in the process.
There really isn't too much to talk about with Courtois' strengths and weaknesses, as there really aren't any weaknesses any more. The only thing he really needs is more time on the pitch to gain more experience. I may be nitpicking a bit there as well, as he probably makes less mental errors than most goalkeepers already considered "world class". There is no aspect of his game in which he struggles at this point, and he's got exceptional height, reach, and athleticism to go along with that.
Where he fits at Chelsea is a bit of a different animal, as Chelsea are one of only a few clubs on the planet where Courtois wouldn't be a clear first choice starter right now. The Blues grabbed him before he became a household name, but his exploits in Spain and in Europe have the bulk of the planet aware of his existence now. He is under contract until the end of the 2015/16 season, so there will be increasing pressure to sell him or start him as it winds down over the next 3-1/2 seasons.
Petr Cech looked to be in decline 18 months ago, but in the past calendar year he's bounced back and possibly been the best goalkeeper on the planet during that time. Where a year ago we'd have been talking about selling Cech to clear the path for Courtois, Petr has assured that will be a very difficult move to justify. Like our Belgian stopper, Cech is under contract until the end of the 2015/16 season.
At 30, Cech is just entering what should be his prime years as a goalkeeper, and it's quite possible that he was the biggest reason we won the Champions League last season. He's well liked, has captained the side occasionally, and is on pace to easily become the all time appearance leader at Chelsea FC if he continues to start for the club through the remainder of his prime. He's also buddies with Snoop Lion, and lions are part of the Chelsea culture. Benching or selling Cech for an unproven (at Chelsea) prospect will be a tough sell to many fans, even if that prospect might be just as good as Petr at his best.
Chelsea will need to do something with one of their two world class keepers in the next several seasons, as their just isn't any way to keep both of them happy. Courtois seems happy on loan for the moment, and we can probably get away with another loan next season as well. After that though, it's likely going to be a choice between the two, with the one losing out being sold for a relatively substantial sum of money. Luckily for us, Chelsea will probably be in great shape either way. Courtois is probably the best goalkeeper prospect in the world, and we are lucky to have him.