Champions League Final: Ancelotti faces a tough choice between Courtois and Lunin

Champions League Final: Ancelotti faces a tough choice between Courtois and Lunin

For Madridistas, the most wonderful thing about Carlo Ancelotti is the fact that he keeps on winning trophies for their club. For the rest of us, it's a happy bonus that the sage Italian is blessed with lovely, well-judged dry wit and humour. It's a total pleasure having him in Spain.

The latest example of his geniality was on the putative debate about whether Thibaut Courtois, out all season with ACL and meniscus injuries -- though the world's No. 1 goalkeeper, in Ancelotti's view -- or Andriy Lunin, genuinely heroic against RB Leipzig and Manchester City and now a LaLiga champion, should start on Saturday at Wembley against Borussia Dortmund.

Ancelotti joked: "I love this kind of external debate -- particularly on weeks like this when I don't have much to do," he said with a grin. "So if I told you who's starting, then I'd miss out on listening to the next few days of fun debate because that would be it over already!

"It's no big deal: one of them plays and the other's on the bench. Look ... it's a tough decision because Lunin deserves to play for lots of reasons as does Courtois, because he's the best in the world."

Gentle, good fun, in which he punctures the stress with a fun answer: That's typical Ancelotti, though this is an important issue.

Unless something unfortunate and unpredictable happens between now and kick-off at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, it'll be the big Belgian, who initially thought he was going to be a professional volleyball player until his early teens, who'll start in goal for Spain's new champions. For those obsessed by guessing the XI, whether for fun or bragging rights, because it's professionally important for those who reckon it gives an edge when it comes to having a little wager on the likely match outcome, that's the punctuation point on the story. An end in itself.

For everyone else, most particularly the Italian, the Belgian, and the Ukrainian, the starting lineup is only the beginning.

There's a general perception that Madrid, by hook or by crook, are almost sure to win this final. Many  gently favour that idea, but this column is meant to quash the concept that Los Blancos' record in UEFA finals -- they've not lost a Champions League final in 43 years and are undefeated in any UEFA knockout final since defeating vs. Aberdeen in the Cup Winners Cup of 1983 -- is something they've achieved "just because they are Madrid."

And so Courtois will start, but let's admit one thing: It's not a guarantee that this will automatically be "his" evening.

Yes, Courtois is a behemoth amongst goalkeepers: Ancelotti is, justified in saying he's the very best. Or at least when he's fully fit and sharp. The Belgian missed about 95% of the season and while his return to match duty has been both successful and impressive, another ACL injury sufferer in the Madrid squad: Éder Militão.

The center-half returned to the line-up at the beginning of April, looking fully fit and soon becoming a very strong candidate to start against Dortmund. Then, as is often the case for long-term injury returners, his slow, steady return suddenly hit the buffers at Villarreal, in a match where he looked rusty, indecisive, and in need of four or five more demanding matches to be back to his best.

The Brazilian was fine, showing signs of being a model recovery where everything was going nicely ... and then he wasn't, and they weren't. Going from 4-1 up at Villarreal and then, in the blink of an eye, being torn apart by a team in yellow to draw 4-4. That simply can't be allowed on Saturday.

Maybe what happened to Militao won't happen to Courtois, but it could, and Ancelotti knows this. The ACL injury used to devastate, and indeed end, many top-level careers. It doesn't have the same effect in the modern era, but it remains a beast of damage to your knee. One hopes and pray that neither his knee ligaments nor, more pertinently, Courtois' sharpness, concentration, form, and confidence afflict him in what is only his third Champions League final and an opportunity to win his second medal.

Nevertheless, the key takeaway is that Ancelotti needs to use another of his great skills: the ability to be the "player whisperer."