A lot has been said about Belgium's strength in depth. In most positions, Belgium have several good options. The only exception is up front, where Divock Origi is backup for Romelu Lukaku. Not that Origi isn't ready and able. He has shown at Lille that he can play and score goals. But you wouldn't call him experienced. Then again, everyone has a first World Cup. Pele was once inexperienced as well.
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While this strong squad is a blessing, it can be frustrating for individual players. One could feel sorry for Simon Mignolet, who was of massive importance in his two seasons at Sunderland and can easily be seen as the most important factor in Liverpool's shot at the Premier League title, along with Luis Suarez. He started the season brilliantly, saving a late penalty and the follow-up on his debut, to secure three points.
It wasn't the last time he won points for Liverpool. In fact, without Mignolet, Liverpool would not have been able to sustain their title challenge for as long as they did, even if there were some hairy moments as well. He is rightly seen as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. It is fair to say that he would walk into the starting lineup for many of the countries playing at the World Cup in two weeks.
Not so in Belgium. Mignolet has the extreme misfortune of having a fellow goalkeeper in his country who is even better -- Thibaut Courtois. It's not that big a difference, even.
As former player Eddy Snelders said in Sport Magazine, "It's a matter of two centimetres in the tips of their fingers. They're very close to each other in everything, but Thibaut Courtois can get that little more that Mignolet just can't reach. Romania scored a goal against us [in a friendly with Mignolet in goal] which I'm sure Courtois would have stopped. Not that it was a goalkeeping error: it wasn't a shot a goalkeeper was expected to save. But that is the difference: two centimetres."
That means that the man Sunderland fans and players soon started calling "Big Simon" only ever gets his chance in meaningless friendlies. To make matters worse, his two games (Colombia and Japan) since that Romania friendly weren't the Red Devils' best. Having just qualified for the World Cup, there was a distinct lack of focus. Mignolet conceded five goals in two games, causing some to brand him a poor man's Courtois.
Courtois for his part has had two amazing years. He made some important saves in Belgium's qualifying campaign, helping them remain unbeaten with only four goals conceded in 10 games. Only England managed the same statistic. Spain conceded only three but played just eight games. He also played an important part in the success of his loan club, Atletico Madrid, keeping 40 clean sheets in La Liga in two seasons. They earned him two consecutive Zamora Trophies, Spain's prize for the best goalkeeper.
Having helped Atletico to the Champions League final with an important save against Chelsea in the semis, Courtois experienced a rare drubbing in that final. After Sergio Ramos' late late equalizer, Atletico never looked like they could still win in extra time, but must have felt quietly safe in the knowledge that their goalkeeper would save them again. Not so this time as Courtois was beaten three more times.
Some have since said that maybe it was too soon to call Courtois the best goalkeeper in the world. And some feared that his confidence might have taken a beating. I think they're wrong on both accounts. For me, Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world at this moment for the sheer importance he has for his club and country, as illustrated above.
In terms of pure talent and class, only Manuel Neuer could be argued to be above him. But Courtois was first-choice goalkeeper for Atletico and Belgium at 19 years of age, whereas Neuer established himself for Germany at 23. Neuer is 28 now so, having turned 22 only three weeks ago, Courtois has many years on him.
As for confidence, you have only to look at Courtois to see that he can't be shaken. He exudes the sort of cool and composure you would expect from a goalkeeper some years older. He has three years of experience in La Liga and is a model professional. He will have looked at the Real Madrid goals as well and seen that, apart from maybe Marcelo's goal to make it 3-1, he could not have done any better.
Even if he hasn't reached that conclusion himself, he is in capable hands in the Belgium camp. The Belgian team are very close. The players look like a bunch of kids having a fantastic time, fathered by Marc Wilmots and his assistant, Vital Borkelmans. They will make sure no heads are hanging. It must be fantastic to be welcomed into that group after such disappointment.
On all accounts, Belgium have nothing to fear as far as their goalkeepers go. Courtois is on top form and only getting better. And in case anything happens to him, Mignolet is ready and able to step in at any time. Also, as far as I know, there is only one player who can score against both. Not to worry as he is on their side. In training yesterday, the on-fire Romelu Lukaku managed to beat both Mignolet and Courtois. With one shot. It is safe to say that Belgium are looking good, from back to front.