A consensus has formed around the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu that Real Madrid’s big ‘galactico’ signing next summer will be a goalkeeper - but nobody is sure yet whether it will be Manchester United’s David De Gea or Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois.
There is a general acceptance that Keylor Navas will not be first choice between the posts at the club next season. Navas had an outstanding 2015/16, following his last minute reprieve during the infamous deadline night fax machine debacle the previous August. His saves were key to Zinedine Zidane’s side conceding just three goals in seven Champions League knock-out ties on the way to taking the trophy after a penalty shoot out in the final against neighbours Atletico Madrid.
But following a foot operation last summer the Costa Rica international has not regained anything like that form. There have been bad mistakes in both Madrid’s La Liga defeats this season, at Valencia and Sevilla in recent weeks. Errors also almost caused the club huge embarrassment in December’s Club World Cup final against Kashima Antlers, and did cost them top spot in their Champions League group last autumn.
The situation has become so troubling that there were calls from many Blancos fans and pundits for reserve Kiko Casilla to come into the team for Sunday’s La Liga game at Villarreal. Zidane backed Navas when speaking before that game, but his words did suggest he was aware of a drop in the level of the Costa Rica international’s performances.
“I have faith in Keylor, a lot of faith,” Zidane said. “The comments outside we cannot control. Everyone can do better, all of us, me too. We cannot always do everything as we want. In football there are moments when you must work hard, but I have faith in him, which is the most important.”
Zidane does not generally comment on transfers in or out of the Bernabeu, mainly as everyone knows that club president Florentino Perez is in charge of that area. Former Atletico Madrid keeper De Gea, 26, is a long-time target of Perez - and there is a widespread feeling of unfinished business following the embarrassment of August 2015.
De Gea subsequently signed a new improved contract at United, but has walked a pretty clever tightrope path since. He has kept everyone at Old Trafford happy with his performances, while also keeping alive hopes at the Bernabeu with cryptic public comments on his plans. “The future, no one knows,” he said last month. “The future is the future.”
Belgium international Courtois, 24, is another top keeper experience playing at Atletico. He is also regularly linked with a return to La Liga one day, with the Bernabeu thought to be his most likely destination should that happen, and has also left the door open with vague talk about enjoying life in the Spanish capital. Clubmate Cesc Fabregas did not exactly dampen this idea by saying recently he was “not surprised” at talk of Courtois interesting the La Liga giants.
All of which does not make things easy for Navas, who gets asked most weeks whether all the speculation is affecting his form. “I try to work hard every day and ignore those sorts of things,” the 30-year-old told Madrid's official website last week. “I don't gain or lose anything with all of that. Madrid has to have the best players and I work hard each day to be the best and to be able to stay here for many years to come.”
Madrid-leaning local sports newspaper AS were having none of that, as they ramped up the speculation last Saturday with an ‘Operation Goalkeeper’ feature headlined ‘Madrid debate whether to sign Courtois or De Gea’.
According to well-connected reporter Tomas Roncero, Courtois has regularly let the Bernabeu hierarchy know that he would favour a move, and wants to return to live in Madrid with his Spanish partner and daughter. That is apparently why he has not extended his Chelsea contract, which ends in June 2019, and would be available for around €50 million this summer.
De Gea’s price would reportedly be €70 million - far above the €15 million swap deal involving Navas that was in place two years back. The Spain international also has higher salary demands - as he wants Madrid to match the bumper deal he signed with United shortly after that transfer fell through. All this means, according to Roncero, that the decision makers at the Spanish club are leaning towards Courtois as the more attractive option as he is both younger and cheaper.
This could well be just spin aimed at convincing United to drop their asking price, as De Gea would likely be the most popular signing among Madrid fans and pundits. The Madrid-born stopper has replaced Iker Casillas as Spain’s number one in recent years, and many feel that despite his Atletico past he is also the 'natural' long-term successor to ‘San Iker’ at the Bernabeu.
The next few months are sure to see plenty more speculation in the Spanish and English press, as well as further carefully timed leaks from all the various parties involved to favoured journalists. With their FIFA transfer ban ending in the summer, Florentino wants to make a big signature signing this summer – and goalkeeper is the position he most wants to fill. Reading between the lines De Gea still looks the most likely arrival but, as events of two years ago showed, there could be a few twists and turns left yet.