Courtois helps break Valencia hearts after swapping boxes for Real Madrid | Sid Lowe

A thrilling finale left honours even but Valencia on their knees after the Real goalkeeper headed upfield and caused mayhem

“I’m two metres tall; that frightens people,” Thibaut Courtois said. It was late, it was loud and he had nothing to lose, so there he was: Real Madrid’s goalkeeper, up the other end, running into the Valencia penalty area for one last shot at saving this, the fear he said his opponents felt about to become real. “It was his idea,” Zinedine Zidane admitted, and it was an idea that had been going around his head since the moment Carlos Soler had given Valencia the lead with 12 minutes left on Sunday night. “I thought: shit, the game’s escaping us, I have to stop everything until the 94th minute, then maybe there will be a corner,” Courtois explained. He’d just stopped Valencia getting a second. Now the clock said 94:23 and there was a corner.

The next thing they knew, Courtois was jumping through a crowd heading goalwards, the ball rebounding into the six-yard box, hearts stopping, and Karim Benzema was sprinting off, teammates running after him laughing, the ball in the net. “That’s Real Madrid,” Zidane said but this was silly, even for them. Courtois chased too, a long black latex finger raised. “What a header!” they kept telling him. Federico Valverde slipped to his knees, pumped his fists and beat the floor. On the touchline, Zidane shouted then got lost in his own smile as the world went wild around him. When the Belgian got back to his own goal, a hundred metres away, he cupped his hands to his ears and blew Valencia’s fans a kiss. Like their team, they had been broken. “I don’t know what happened,” Soler said moments later.

What happened? Pretty much everything happened. There had been a yellow card given and taken away and shown to someone else instead, another minute going by as they watched it back in the VAR room in Las Rozas; a wonderful chance for Valencia to win it, Courtois saving from Manu Vallejo barely three yards out; a Madrid equaliser from Luka Jovic, ruled out for offside, and another VAR check. There had been another opportunity; a possible penalty, not given because Benzema decided to stay on his feet and play instead; and what seemed like one, last desperate shot. Then another, and then another. And then, with the penultimate touch of the entire match, there was an equaliser thanks to a goalkeeper on the attack. All that just in the five minutes added on at the end.

In the 90 minutes before, there had been 34 shots, a superb start from Madrid met by an impressive reaction from Valencia, Benzema and Dani Parejo the embodiment of each team’s moment, the noise rising by the minute. Valencia led and were close, Daniel Wass pulling back for Soler to score. They might have ended it too, more chances following. But it was still alive.

On 92.21, exhausted now, barely able to move, Rodrigo scrambled the ball to Vallejo but Courtois stopped him. Seconds later, Mestalla fell silent when Jovic scored, then broke into a huge roar when it was ruled out – and another when VAR confirmed it. They roared again on 93:27 when Madrid’s last chance had gone, but it wasn’t the last chance. On 93:59, Dani Carvajal thumped the ball up the right wing and Benzema slipped away. Turning inside, he could have forced a penalty; instead forced a shot, deflected wide. All that, and it came to this: a corner, Courtois sprinting up the other end. “It’s good that he did; it shows we never give up,” Zidane said. “I looked to the bench, but there were only seconds left so I went,” Courtois said. “You have to go convinced you can score.”


⚪ Real Madrid equalise with the last kick of the game!

😱 Thibaut Courtois almost scores a header, and then Karim Benzema scrambles the rebound home!

— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) December 15, 2019

He didn’t, but he did make it. There were 20 players inside the area, but none were on him; no one plans for this. “He didn’t have a marker of course,” Soler said. Courtois jumped above Geoffrey Kondogbia, a late substitute, and thudded the header towards goal. He has more headers on target this season than Lionel Messi, as many as Antoine Griezmann or Gareth Bale. Jaume Doménech pushed it away – he might have held it – and for a moment, the world stopped spinning. It fell between Ezequiel Garay’s feet. There was a second’s stillness, panic pouring into it. Surrounded, Garay knew the ball was there somewhere, but not exactly where, and knew he wanted rid of it. His leg moved, almost an involuntary spasm that turned into a backheel to Benzema. Up it went into the net and off they went. There wasn’t even time to take the kick-off properly: one touch, and the whistle went.

“The classic before the clásico,” AS had called it and it ended 1-1, just as Barcelona’s visit to San Sebastián the day before had ended 2-2. Madrid had matched Barcelona again following their draw at Real Sociedad, a huge weekend leaving the two teams level three days before they meet at the Camp Nou, the final hurdle overcome. “With everything we had done, it looked like we had lost it all,” Zidane said. Instead, the run continues: Madrid have not lost in 11 matches now. And if their manager felt like they deserved more, Carvajal insisted: “this gives us a fantastic push for the Camp Nou; this Madrid never give up and hopefully this point can help us win the league.”

Karim Benzema’s equalising goal against Valencia came in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
Karim Benzema’s equalising goal against Valencia came in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

“Drawing like this gives us a huge boost,” Courtois said. For Valencia, it was a blow, Soler’s face was as eloquent as his words. “We had it in our hand, but there was a deflection and football’s like that,” he said. “What can you say after that?” manager Albert Celades was asked. For a moment there was silence. “Yeah, it’s a pity,” he said eventually. “In a few days we’ll look back on this and see it differently, but right now, they way it happened .”

He was right. When Celades took over at Valencia after Marcelino was sacked in September, he walked into a crisis not of his own making and few expected him to be the man to fix it. He had no senior managerial experience and a dressing room that was close to the previous manager, unlikely to embrace his arrival: it was easy to imagine him as an unwanted intruder, the owners’ puppet, and most did. At his first press conference he sat alone, the players still furious and refusing to talk. And yet quietly, slowly, he won them over and last night it took a scary, two-metre tall goalkeeper with a prodigious leap coming up in the last second to prevent his team from beating Madrid and climbing to within a point of the Champions League places.

In the last two weeks, hit by seemingly endless injuries, Valencia have played two derbies, Chelsea, Ajax and Madrid and lost none of them. When they got through in Amsterdam in midweek, reaching the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in six years, Rodrigo kept repeating the same word over and over: “miracle”. Players made a point of going to the manager at full-time. Few talk about Albert Celades, least of all Albert Celades, but they should. “What these guys have done is the ‘milk’,” he insisted that night – the business, in other words – and he was repeating himself last night, in that same, quiet, unremarkable voice. “These players deserve a lot of credit,” he said. “And what about you?” he was asked. “I try to help,” he said.

Talking points

  • “Bordalás, I love you,” the Getafe fans sang as their team defeated Valladolid 2-0, their fifth consecutive game without conceding, to move into fourth. Yes, Getafe are back in a Champions League place. And while it’s not new any more – it happened last season, when they got very, very close, only to lose out to Valencia on the final day, it’s still amazing. Bordalás took over with Getafe in trouble near the bottom. Of the second division. No wonder they’re serenading him. “I love them too,” he said, “very much.”

  • When the final whistle went on Real Sociedad v Barcelona on Saturday evening, everyone inside Anoeta stood to applaud, clapping so loud that it sounded like they would make their hands bleed. Down on the pitch, the players embraced. The talk would be of penalties – the one Real Sociedad got and the one that Barcelona didn’t – and it would get increasingly petty, pretty pathetic in fact, but right then, right there, the feeling was different.

    No one had won, either of them could have, and everyone enjoyed this. Goals from Mikel Oyarzabal, Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suárez and Alexander Isak had seen it finish 2-2. It had been fun while it lasted, and it had lasted until the very end, Gerard Piqué diving for the final opportunity deep in added time. That was when he appealed that he had been pulled back by Diego Llorente, although the Real Sociedad defender approached him, repeating: “You pulled me on to you”.

    Asked what he thought, Ernesto Valverde said: “What am I going to say? We have our team shirts on: I’ll say theirs wasn’t and ours was and their manager will come here and say the opposite.” That though, didn’t set the tone, and so on it ran. Which was a pity, because the game had been so much fun. Martin Ødegaard in particular was wonderful, while Griezmann dinked in a lovely goal against the former club where they still like him – and he didn’t celebrate. “It had a bit of everything,” Valverde said. “It was a great game,” Imanol Alguacil said. He looked exhausted and he wasn’t the only one.

Alavés 1-1 Leganés, Athletic 0-0 Eibar, Atlético Madrid 2-0 Osasuna, Celta Vigo 2-2 Mallorca, Espanyol 2-2 Real Betis, Getafe 2-0 Real Valladolid, Granada 1-2 Levante, Real Sociedad 2-2 Barcelona, Sevilla 1-2 Villarreal, Valencia 1-1 Real Madrid

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 16 23 35
2 Real Madrid 16 21 35
3 Sevilla 17 4 31
4 Getafe 17 10 30
5 Atletico Madrid 17 8 29
6 Real Sociedad 17 8 28
7 Athletic Bilbao 17 7 27
8 Valencia 17 3 27
9 Granada 17 2 24
10 Osasuna 17 2 23
11 Levante 17 -4 23
12 Real Betis 17 -5 23
13 Villarreal 17 5 22
14 Alaves 17 -6 19
15 Valladolid 17 -6 19
16 Eibar 17 -13 16
17 Mallorca 17 -12 15
18 Celta Vigo 17 -11 14
19 Leganes 17 -16 10
20 Espanyol 17 -20 10


Sid Lowe

The GuardianTramp

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