At Real Madrid’s training ground on Friday morning, the mood and messaging was not as sombre as you might have expected.
The day after Thibaut Courtois’ injury ruled him out for most of the new season, there was the familiar sound of laughter among team-mates as the sun shone down. But some things were different.
The first 15 minutes of Madrid’s training sessions are usually held with all the players together while the media is allowed in. In a break from this, the three goalkeepers taking part were instead shown off to the cameras separately. As Andriy Lunin, Lucas Canizares and Fran Gonzalez took part in drills with goalkeeping coach Lluis Llopis, it seemed like a clear communication: Courtois is not here, but here are our other goalkeepers and they are this good.
Still, there can be no doubt at all that the Belgian’s long-term absence is a huge blow for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
Madrid start the season with a tough trip to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday. That they will be without Courtois, their defensive saviour on so many occasions over the past four seasons, will make it tougher still. Courtois’ injury also leaves the club with a tricky choice: to sign a replacement or to stick with what they have?
Sources at the club, who preferred to speak anonymously as they did not have permission to comment, matched that coordinated display of confidence when asked for their thoughts on the subject. “It’s Lunin’s moment,” one said.
But it is true that the 24-year-old Ukrainian has always been held in higher esteem among those who work in Madrid’s offices than among the coaching staff, who, as The Athletic has already reported, have had their doubts about him.
This, in addition to the inexperience of Canizares, 21, and Pinero, 19, as well as 18-year-old Fran Gonzalez, who travelled with the squad in pre-season, means Madrid are not ruling out bringing in a new face to compete with Lunin for a starting spot.
Lunin has already been told by the club they have confidence in him but that they will bring in a goalkeeper because a year without Courtois is too much of a risk.
So who might they turn to?
Despite being relegated to the bench at Sevilla, Bounou is not an easy option.
He is expected to play for Morocco in the Africa Cup of Nations in January, which would prevent him from playing at least three games for Real Madrid, and he is also the most expensive option because he has a contract until 2025 and, thanks to his latest extension in 2022, his release clause increased to €50million according to Spanish media.
But Bounou, 32, is a top-level goalkeeper, very complete and one of the names discussed internally by the coaching staff. That said, the final decision will be taken by the club, who do not have the best relations with Sevilla since they took Mariano Diaz away from them at the last minute in 2019 — which could make the operation even more difficult.
David de Gea
The former Manchester United goalkeeper, 32, is now a free agent after leaving Old Trafford. In theory, this would make a Madrid move for him quite simple, but two other factors suggest the opposite.
First, there is the context behind his failed move to Real back in 2015. De Gea was on the brink of a transfer from United but it fell through with the late delivery of documents beyond the deadline. However, what happened was interpreted elsewhere as a sign that Madrid ultimately did not have confidence in the Spanish goalkeeper. De Gea does not have a good memory of the experience.
Another factor is that at United, De Gea was earning more than any player in the current Madrid squad and it has been rumoured that he has an even more lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia on the table, which the Spanish club would find it impossible to match.
Earlier this summer, Getafe goalkeeper Soria, 30, was a reported option for Madrid, with various media outlets running stories on his candidacy as a replacement for Lunin. But if there was interest, at no time did any negotiations actually take place.
For the moment, according to the player’s camp, Madrid have not made any approach, but Soria was one of the most in-form Spanish goalkeepers last season and he is certainly a name to keep in mind.
Another goalkeeper who has been linked to Real in the past is Kepa Arrizabalaga.
In the winter of 2018, Chelsea’s Kepa was still at Athletic Bilbao and looked close to joining Madrid before then-manager Zinedine Zidane put the brakes on the transfer and, eventually, Thibaut Courtois was signed instead the following summer.
Kepa, 28, has been more highly regarded by Real, and for longer, than De Gea. Bayern Munich are reportedly interested in a possible loan deal and there is a chance Madrid could try to seek a similar arrangement.
Costa Rica captain Navas won three Champions League titles in a row at Madrid before leaving to join Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 after Courtois arrived.
The 36-year-old would likely be available as PSG have Gianluigi Donnarumma as their first option and Arnau Tenas as backup. Navas spent a successful half-season on loan at Nottingham Forest last season, helping them to stay in the Premier League.
However, Navas’ relationship with parts of the current Madrid dressing room is not the best and that might well ultimately distance him from any plans Ancelotti might have. Real, under his watch, have been characterised by a good atmosphere.
(Top photo: Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)