Chelsea pays Kepa's release clause, breaks records for Thibaut Courtois replacement

Yahoo Sports
Kepa Arrizabalaga has joined Chelsea after two seasons at Athletic Bilbao. (Getty)
Kepa Arrizabalaga has joined Chelsea after two seasons at Athletic Bilbao. (Getty)

Thibaut Courtois is now headed to Real Madrid, and the Blues broke multiple records to sign his replacement.

Chelsea representatives, according to reports, arrived at La Liga headquarters Wednesday morning with $92.7 million to trigger the release clause in Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga’s contract. The Spanish club later confirmed the payment had been made, and Kepa’s contract therefore terminated.

On Thursday, the 23-year-old Spaniard was confirmed by the club:

The fee – 80 million, £71.7 million – will make the Bilbao man the most expensive goalkeeper ever, just weeks after Liverpool smashed the previous record to purchase Alisson Becker from Roma. It’ll also make him the most expensive player in the history of Chelsea Football Club.

And the move will likely pave the way for Courtois’ exit. But will Kepa really be able to replace the 2018 World Cup Golden Glove winner?

Who is Kepa Arrizabalaga?

Arrizabalaga is a Bilbao youth product who burst onto the La Liga scene over the past two years. His performances for the Basque side led to widespread rumors and reports of a January 2018 transfer to Real Madrid.

But that move never materialized. It was reportedly blocked by then-Real manager Zinedine Zidane, who preferred to stick with Keylor Navas. Kepa, instead, signed a contract extension with the 80 million buyout clause. Madrid, instead, appears to have opted for Courtois. So the Blues have turned to Real’s former target.

On the international stage, Arrizabalaga was in Spain’s 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup, but did not play. He has one cap for La Roja. He’s a promising keeper with room to grow. But, well, he’s no Courtois.

Is Kepa worth the price?

He’s likely not worth the $92.7 million Chelsea has paid for him. The most suitable comparison is to Alisson, who went for a fee between $19.9 million and $8.2 million less, depending on incentives. And Alisson is probably the better keeper.

Kepa’s ceiling might be higher. He’s two years younger. His recently-signed contract upped his value, and the buyout clause saved Chelsea the last-minute haggling. But Alisson, Brazil’s No. 1, is more proven at a higher (Champions League, international) level.

For a club to pay over $90 million for a goalkeeper – rather than around $30 million or $40 million, perhaps for Stoke’s Jack Butland or Sevilla’s Sergio Rico – it better have proof that it’s buying a sure thing. Chelsea might think it has found that. Or this might be the ultimate panic purchase.

What does Chelsea’s Kepa payment mean for Courtois?

It almost certainly means Chelsea, reluctant at first, has decided to sell the Belgian shot-stopper. Courtois skipped training on both Monday and Tuesday, presumably to hold out for his dream move to Madrid. As of Wednesday, he still hadn’t returned to London. His agent had put public pressure on Chelsea.

It appears the Blues have now conceded. Various reports say Courtois will complete a $45 million move to Real Madrid by the end of the week. His fee is half that of Kepa’s because he is entering the final year of his Chelsea contract.

Whereas Kepa’s medical and contract negotiations must be wrapped up by Thursday at noon ET, the Premier League’s deadline, La Liga’s isn’t until the end of the month. There is less urgency to Courtois negotiations.

Chelsea will also sign Real Madrid midfielder Mateo Kovacic on loan in conjunction with the deal.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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What to expect at Arsenal post-Wenger?
Wednesday: Is a Mourinho flameout already underway?
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