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Inside FutbolInside Futbol

England

Chelsea’s Cech: Fading in the Limelight

 

Hassan Chamas


October 16th, 2006 was a date that will go down for infamy to all Chelsea followers worldwide, as the day that nearly cost goalkeeper Petr Cech’s life: A minute into the clash against Reading at the Madejski Stadium, the Royals’ midfielder Stephen Hunt challenged the Blues’ custodian for the ball, in the process kneeing him to the head.

As the Pensioners’ boss Jose Mourinho rushed from the sidelines directing all sorts of shouts and exhibiting a piece of his mind at the challenge that took place, Cech never got up. Ironically enough, his replacement, Carlo Cudicini could not even finish the game, and skipper John Terry had to assume shot-stopping duty for the remainder of the bout.

Rushed to the hospital, Cech’s injury proved more serious than predicted, as a result of him having a “softer” cranium as he is one of triplets. After a series of primary tests, Cech was diagnosed with a “depressed skull fracture”, with doctors affirming that had he not been attended to this early, the result could have been fatal. Shortly afterwards, the custodian’s father claimed that his son would take a year-long hiatus in order to recuperate.

But an annual period was too much for one of Chelsea’s leading figures to spend in the treatment room. So just three months after suffering the blow, Cech made his comeback, sporting a rugby-style polyester foam headgear in order to protect his head.

It’s not a coincidence that Cech’s injury sparked the end of Chelsea’s two-year dominance of the English Premier League in favour of Manchester United: The resurgence of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils led by Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo proved to be too much for a team that really became all that it could be in the world’s best league.

In 2006/07, Man Utd were on course to recover a lost crown after a four-year divorce, and the following year, printed their hands on football’s boulevard as the best team in the world by winning domestic and continental accolades. Chelsea, in the meantime, stalled, as funds from Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich drastically decreased, in contrast to Malcolm Glazer who provided SAF with quality players every now and then, such as Brazilian playmaker Anderson, Portuguese winger Nani, and West Ham’s surprise signing Carlos Tevez.

Yes, one would say that the arrival of Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko were meant to take the Blues to the next pedestal, but really, was any team a match for a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Manchester United, who could prove to be the difference maker on any day? Sarcastically enough, both teams ended up meeting in the UEFA Champions League final last year, with the Reds – under the guidance of CR7 (or CR9 if you believe reports he has registered that as his new trademark due to Real Madrid promising him the number 9 shirt) – emerging as the clear victors of the bout.

Cech’s ascension to the top of the goalkeepers’ standings will always go down in history as one of the fastest runs of all time: After exposing himself to the public following his move from French outfit Stade Rennes, the Czech number 1 finished second in the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper stats, eighty points behind record holder Gianluigi Buffon. His impressive form between the posts for Chelsea meant that the 1.96m giant would end up with the title the following year, as his team went on to win their second ever Premier League trophy.

Petr Cech’s displays for Chelsea glued him in third and second place in the standings for the following couple of years, but the message was out and clear: He, along with World Cup winner Gianluigi Buffon and Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas were the best three glovesmen Europe had to offer. With the former Sparta Prague goalkeeper being the youngest, he had all the time in the world to gradually cement his stature as the world’s best shot-stopper.

And then came the incident. A contact that seemed so natural to the average observer cost in reality lots of points in terms of confidence and form for Cech: Wearing that headgear, he must now think twice before diving at the feet of a surging opponent, before intercepting a ball between melees of legs that could end up bashing his head. Daily training may even be an event for him, with the spectre of potential injury never leaving his mind.

Chelsea are no longer the force they used to be back in 2005 and 2006. That being said, there is a grain of truth in saying that Petr Cech is no longer the player he used to be: Manchester United are showing signs that they could possibly be the best squad the Old Trafford faithful has ever seen, while Liverpool are finally displaying their true colours, screening why they are the most successful English club ever.

As England’s most successful red-wearing teams are locking horns in order to lift the league title come May, it would be natural that their goalkeepers would prove to be a major factor in the Roman games between them: Edwin van der Sar is proving to be ageless like French wine, breaking all sorts of records in the process, the latest being that of 1,196 minutes without conceding a goal, a feat established by former England keeper Chris Woods. Not far from Manchester, on Merseyside, Spanish keeper Pepe Reina’s aptitude to keep clean sheets has made him an integral part of the club’s vertebrae, along with the likes of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, as he is doing his best to save countryman Rafael Benitez’s job and keeping United’s claws off their hallowed eighteen league titles.

Established goalkeepers are really hard to mold, and even more importantly, difficult to acquire. But that is all over nowadays as the Euros prepare to be spent, even with a global economic crisis that is ravaging the Western world in particular. In a time where Gianluigi Buffon resisted mega offers to stay with fallen Juventus in Serie B, he recently claimed that should the millions put on the table by Manchester City to prize away Kaka be presented to his club, he would leave Juve to seek out an adventure with the Citizens.

That is not to say that Petr Cech is not suitable anymore for Chelsea, as the Blues remain a good estimation of the most suitable place for him, with him being reciprocally the paramount that they can manage. Nonetheless, goalkeepers are at often times presented with one chance, and it is vital for them to grasp it in order to relegate their understudy to pointless cameo appearances only.

It is difficult to find the wisdom behind the transfer of backup keeper Carlo Cudicini to Tottenham during the winter break, after the Italian had spent the past nine years at Stamford Bridge. Perhaps former coach Luiz Felipe Scolari wanted to put some pressure on Petr Cech and give his countryman Henrique Hilario a run. Either way, the result is still the same: the Czech Republic’s undisputed number 1 is no longer the best in England, to say the least.

So it came no surprise to see him a disappointing fourth in the standings for 2008’s top custodian. He has all the ability to get back and snatch the title from the hands of the newly crowned Iker Casillas, but he can no longer be expected to put his body at risk. Against Liverpool in their most recent meeting, he was brilliant for the Blues, but in order to be given some credibility as the world’s best, his defending back-four should learn from their mistakes as to not give strikers license to move, a privilege that was granted to Fernando Torres who proved to be the difference maker on that occasion.

It’s a real pity that such an injury blocked the ascension to greatness of perhaps the best keeper to emerge from Eastern Europe since the time of Lev Yashin. For Manchester United fans, it brings them great joy to see their 38 year-old van der Sar break record after record each weekend. For the Stamford Bridge faithful, they just have to lament their luck, thinking that Stephen Hunt pushed their goalkeeper out of his stride after nearly planting his flag on the top of the mountain as the best at what he does.

 

*RARE* Chelsea 97/98 Home           Chelsea 08/09 Track Top

Chelsea 1997/98 home shirt                            Chelsea 08/09 track top, blue

Published: Sunday, 15th Feb 2009