Thibaut Courtois crisis Chelsea's own doing as Sarri faces keeper quandary
Chelsea sacking Antonio Conte and hiring Maurizio Sarri to replace him finally brought to an end a lengthy and frantic period of speculation about the manager's position at the club.
In an ideal world, Conte would have left Stamford Bridge following Chelsea's FA Cup triumph over Manchester United in May and Sarri would have been announced as his successor shortly after. Such a scenario would have given the former Napoli manager a decent period of time to assess and speak to members of the squad he inherited. He could have discussed transfer targets with the club's hierarchy and have a side ready and capable of playing his revolutionary style of football from the start of the season.
Unfortunately, things didn't map out this way. Sarri and Chelsea have less than a month before the big kick-off to get themselves organised. Supporters were relieved and re-energised last weekend when the managerial saga was resolved, but the feel-good factor at Sarri's appointment soon dissipated when it became clear that two of the club's star players, Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, were once again being linked with a move away, specifically to Real Madrid.
These rumours are nothing new. Hazard's status as one of the world's best players has seen him talked about in the same glowing terms as serial Ballon d'Or winners Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for several seasons. At 27, he's also at the peak of his powers so it's understandable Madrid would covet him so highly. Fortunately for Chelsea, the gifted playmaker is under contract until 2020 and is known to have a settled family life in England. Even if the La Liga giants tabled a colossal bid for Hazard, right now the chances are it would be ignored. Nothing lasts forever but at least Sarri will have time to plan ahead for life without the Belgian should the decision be taken to sell in a year's time.
Courtois is completely different and as developments this week have highlighted, the realisation of the importance of the goalkeeping position and not having a world class player to fill it has caused a mild form of panic to set in among fans. While Hazard has spoken fleetingly of his admiration of Real Madrid, Courtois, having spent three successful seasons on loan with Atletico, has made no secret of his desire to return to the Spanish capital where he set his family up. The pull of his two children who live there is a strong one and for the past couple of seasons, Courtois has spoken constantly about his intentions to be reunited with them.
Bizarrely, Chelsea appear to have buried their head in the sand as far as Courtois is concerned. Unlike Hazard, they have allowed the keeper to float into the last 12 months of his contract, meaning his transfer value is diminishing rapidly.
At present, Real are rumoured to be willing to pay £35 million for Courtois -- and next summer they could sign him for nothing. It's plain to see the 26-year-old has no intention of signing a new deal. His agitating for a move away has seen plenty of supporters declare their willingness to drive him to the airport -- and why not? Fans want to see players who are committed to the cause, not constantly whinging. But there is a problem, and suddenly it's become significant -- who takes Courtois place when he leaves?
Brazil international Alisson Becker was the man in the frame until he agreed a move from Roma to Liverpool, a club who recently found to their cost why the goalkeeper's position is perhaps the most important on a football pitch. A calamitous performance by Loris Karius against Real Madrid in May's Champions League final cost his team any chance of winning the trophy.
Alisson's move to Anfield leaves Chelsea scrabbling around looking at alternatives with names being thrown around like confetti. Among them, Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City), Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan) and, surprisingly, Petr Cech who has been plying his trade with Arsenal for the past three seasons. Having been sold by Chelsea to give Courtois the ultimate assurance he was the undisputed first choice, Cech's position at the Emirates is threatened by the arrival of new signing Bernd Leno from Bayer Leverkusen.
Chelsea have Argentina international Willy Caballero as a back-up to Courtois in their ranks, but the 36-year-old endured a nightmare World Cup with Argentina and was dropped following a dire performance against Croatia. Courtois, Caballero and the rest of the Blues players who featured for their countries in Russia have yet to report back for preseason, giving Sarri the type of headache he really could do without as he tries to plan for the new season.
The new Chelsea manager has already declared he will speak with Courtois and Hazard when they return from their holidays so it seems that nothing will be decided until then. The possibility remains that if a top quality replacement keeper cannot be signed, the Blues could end up retaining the services of wantaway Courtois for the remaining year of his contract, rendering worthless a player who won the Golden Glove playing for Belgium at the World Cup and is yet to reach his prime.
It's a shocking state of affairs to be in which Chelsea really only have themselves to blame. A big part of Conte's problems were attributed to the board's dealings with contracts and transfers in general. While Sarri has initially declared that such things bore him, that will soon change when the pressure to achieve results comes to bear if he's looking at gaps in his playing squad.