On paper, at least, Chelsea cruised to a 4-0 win away at Nordsjaelland on Tuesday night, but the scoreline masked a spell of pressure that the European champions owed a debt of gratitude to Petr Cech for repelling – and not for the first time in his illustrious time at the club.
At Parken Stadium, with the home side trailing 1-0, Nicolai Stockholm and Joshua John tested the Czech shot-stopper. The first two efforts were comfortable for Cech but the third had him scrambling to his left and clawing a curling, dipping effort from John out of the top corner. In short, it was a world-class save.
On Saturday at the Emirates Stadium, with his team leading 2-1, Cech tipped another goalbound effort, this time a Lukas Podolski header, out of the furthest reaches of his net. He had no right to deny the German an equalising goal, just as he had no right to prevent Nordsjaelland pulling level on Tuesday.
Perhaps it is no surprise to see Cech in such convincing form. He has, after all, been a mainstay of the Chelsea machine and has done this for eight years – we have grown accustomed to his excellence.
Add his inspirational Champions League displays en route to capturing the game’s greatest prize and you have a No.1 in full flow. He is confident, assured and the foundation on which Chelsea are now built.
For, over this summer, the club has undergone major surgery. Gone – or at the least, marginalised – are many of the old guard as the club look to smooth the transition from old to new.
Oscar and Eden Hazard joined Juan Mata to provide an attacking trio brimming with skill and invention, easing the gradual decline and worth of Frank Lampard. The goals his career was noted for should be spread evenly across the board and indeed cover the malaise Fernando Torres is suffering.
At the back David Luiz and Gary Cahill look primed to strike up an understanding able to cushion the weight of John Terry’s eventual retirement. Even at left-back, Ryan Bertrand already looks the natural heir to Ashley Cole.
It seems strange to talk of Cech as part of the ‘old guard’ at Chelsea but in many ways he is. Of the starting XI in Denmark, only Cole and Lampard are older and Cech is very much one of the senior pros in Roberto Di Matteo’s squad.
Signed from Rennes in 2004 for £7 million, the then-22-year-old dislodged Carlo Cudicini, a terrace favourite, and embarked on a debut campaign that leaked just 15 league goals.
Even now, aged 30, he remains relatively young in a goalkeeping context. The agility is certainly still there and remains remarkable for a man of such stature, while his footwork is trusty.
He is vocal and commands his penalty box better than the majority of Europe’s keepers – arguably the most important facet of a modern day keeper, once you get past the requisite shot-stopping ability.
He is not without his flaws though: An inexplicable handling error under pressure from his own Czech Republic team-mate at Euro 2012 handed Greece a way back into their group game, whilst a similar mistake at Wigan last season cost his side two points. There were parallels with both goals – each time Cech was called to gather a low cross in among a scrum of bodies – an understandable mental scar borne from the skull fracture he sustained at Reading in October 2006 prevented him averting the danger.
It took Cech a long time to recover from that horrific injury and his confidence was noticeably shaken. The broken nose he received against Blackburn in late 2011 preceded another dip in form and this points to an entirely expected fragility in his make-up.
But taking the whole package leaves Chelsea with a dependable goalkeeper capable of making saves very few can and although his form dipped in the last couple of years, he was invigorated by the backs-to-the-wall journey through Europe in 2011-12. He has recaptured the poise last seen in the Jose Mourinho years at Stamford Bridge – the days of going 1025 minutes without conceding a goal.
It would be remiss not to cast a glance to Atletico Madrid’s on loan Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois given the topic of goalkeeping replacements. The 20-year-old looks a carbon copy of Cech with his almost skeletal gait and has racked up an impressive CV in his year and a bit in the Spanish capital.
Winning the Europa League provided Courtois with a fateful meeting with Chelsea in the European Super Cup – a one-off game that he impressed in as Atletico demolished the new-look Blues 4-1 in Monaco.
Whether he will be ready to press Cech for the No.1 shirt remains to be seen, though the current occupier of the gloves at Stamford Bridge has been effusive in his praise for his understudy: “If you look around Europe and you look at the goalkeepers with top quality that you would expect for a Premier League team, then there are not many as talented as Thibaut is. He is one of the best talents in European football.”
The threat to his position will grow as Courtois ages but the biggest danger lies in the hands of Di Matteo. History has taught us that replacing a goalkeeper is both the most important and difficult problem a manager must solve.
It took Sir Alex Ferguson six years to finally replace Peter Schmeichel and you could argue Arsene Wenger has never found David Seaman’s successor. Everyone associated with Chelsea will hope for a seamless transition when Cech’s time runs out.
But he is a stalwart. A veteran at 30, with 378 appearances to his name and 95 international caps. He signed a new four-year deal in the summer and already holds the club record for appearances made by a foreign player.
It will inevitably be a formidable task to replace him when he does end his association with the club, but for now, Chelsea will be delighted to retain this valued member of the old guard.