Czech chances of Euro qualification hinge on Petr's head being right
Referee Mike Dean stopped play at Ewood Park for seven minutes on Saturday as ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs medical staff tended to Petr ÃÂechÃ¢ÂÂs bloodied nose.
The goalkeeper had put himself in harmÃ¢ÂÂs way again, clashing with teammate Ashley Cole in a successful attempt to prevent the Blackburn striker Yakubu from scoring.
Patched up, he played on as Chelsea got back to winning ways and kept their first clean sheet in the Premier League since the opening day of the season. Ã¢ÂÂWhat can I say about Petr?Ã¢ÂÂ Andre Villas-Boas mused after the match. Ã¢ÂÂHe is very injury prone in football and all sorts of things have happened to him.Ã¢ÂÂ
A medial ligament injury meant ÃÂech missed the visits of West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City to Stamford Bridge in August. He had been back between the sticks for just three matches when he went off at half-time in the Carling Cup against Fulham with a concussion after a coming together with Orlando SÃÂ¡.
Ã¢ÂÂMy head went back like when you get a right hook in boxing,Ã¢ÂÂ ÃÂech said. Ã¢ÂÂWhat happened, I donÃ¢ÂÂt know. I think the helmet took most of the impact. I had a concussion. When I came inside the dressing room I couldnÃ¢ÂÂt see properly and I didnÃ¢ÂÂt have the awareness of the space.Ã¢ÂÂ
Thoughts inevitably turned to that afternoon in October 2006 when the right knee of Reading midfielder Stephen Hunt fractured his skull. ÃÂech was out for three months. He has worn a scrum cap ever since, a reminder of the event and the vulnerability of the goalkeeper.
Ã¢ÂÂWhen I played again after my first injury I said if I need to put my head somewhere I will do it,Ã¢ÂÂ ÃÂech insisted. Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs part of the game. One day if I feel the fear of putting my head in the middle of some battle or scrum, then I stop. But so far I havenÃ¢ÂÂt felt that.Ã¢ÂÂ
His frequent need for treatment indicates he has stayed true to his word. ÃÂech even felt able to laugh about his most recent knock, which threatens to rule him out of the first leg of the Czech RepublicÃ¢ÂÂs Euro 2012 play-off against Montenegro at the Stadion LetnÃÂ¡ in Prague on Friday.
Ã¢ÂÂWeÃ¢ÂÂll see how it turns out. If I were to start, then it would only be while wearing a mask. I already wear headgear and I think that I would look like Batman.Ã¢ÂÂ
Already without Shakhtar midfielder TomÃÂ¡Ã Â¡ HÃÂ¼bschman, suspended for another two matches, Czech Republic coach Michal BÃÂlek faces a dilemma at the back. Ã¢ÂÂA broken nose is a painful injury, particularly for a goalkeeper who can be the target of challenges from tall strikers,Ã¢ÂÂ he noted.
Ã¢ÂÂPetr will have a special mask from Italy and how he feels will be crucial for my decision about who starts in goal. I hope he will be ready, his presence on the pitch is very important for us because he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.Ã¢ÂÂ
With 84 caps, ÃÂechÃ¢ÂÂs experience and influence is undeniable. Still only 29, he should be about to enter his peak. Yet his recent form has not made for good statistics. Before last weekÃ¢ÂÂs trip to Blackburn, Opta revealed that ÃÂech had the worst saves-to-shots percentage in the Premier League at 46%. This time last year, he led the way in that regard with 91.7%. The 5-3 defeat to Arsenal on October 29 was a case in point.
Cole inadvertently plants one on his teammate at Ewood Park on Saturday
ÃÂech was beaten too easily at his near post first by Andre Santos to his right then Theo Walcott to his left. He was also fooled by the trajectory and velocity of Robin van PersieÃ¢ÂÂs hat-trick goal when his positioning was suspect too.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs worth asking whether ÃÂech has been left more exposed by ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs use of a high defensive line under Villas-Boas. On the one hand, his team have conceded fewer shots in the Premier League than last year. The number has fallen by 29%. On the other, ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs style of play has perhaps led to ÃÂech facing more high-risk situations. The opposition might be restrained to fewer goal-scoring chances, but the ones they are presented with are Ã¢ÂÂclearerÃ¢ÂÂ, like a one-on-one for instance.
ÃÂech has wobbled before, notably in the 2007/08 season following the departure of JosÃÂ© Mourinho. He experienced hip problems and got contact lenses. There was a falling out with Luiz Felipe Scolari amid claims that he wanted his mentor at Rennes, Christophe Lollichon, to be his personal goalkeeping coach and not work with Henrique Hilario and Rhys Taylor, claims ÃÂech was disappointed by and rejected out of hand.
Once those issues had been dealt with he rediscovered his form, winning the FA Cup under Guus Hiddink and the Double under Carlo Ancelotti. Then last winter, after a 3-1 loss to Arsenal and a 3-3 draw with Aston Villa, he came under scrutiny again.
Speaking to The Times in January, ÃÂech answered the critics who had described him as a shadow of his former self. Ã¢ÂÂI always question why people say that,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂI do the analysis of my game with the people who work at the club and if someone says: Ã¢ÂÂHeÃ¢ÂÂs not the sameÃ¢ÂÂ, then IÃ¢ÂÂm happy to take all the analysis of my performances for someone to judgeÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Ã¢ÂÂWhen you look at the statistics, the amount of crosses I catch, how far from the goal I go, how big an area I cover in my interceptions, the last two seasons I have caught more crosses and covered more ground than ever before.Ã¢ÂÂ
The Dark Knight rises...or something
Proving the doubters wrong, ÃÂech bounced back again and was named ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs Player of the Year. Still, the notion persists that he is in slow decline. ItÃ¢ÂÂs worth bearing in mind that ÃÂech was just 22 when he arrived from Rennes in 2004. Goalkeepers tend to mature later than outfield players. The early emergence of Gigi Buffon and Iker Casillas in their teens was taken for an anomaly. Now, with the examples of Manuel Neuer  at Bayern, David de Gea  at Manchester United, Yann Sommer  at Basel and Wojciech SzczÃÂsny  at Arsenal all starting in the Champions League there is evidence that the process is occurring more quickly. To elaborate on that theme, maybe goalkeepers are peaking sooner rather than later, and perhaps therefore the very best of ÃÂech is behind him.
Yet that presumption is not entirely fair and seems premature, even if ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs acquisition of the precocious Thibaut Courtois from Genk in the summer for ÃÂ£7.9 million shows forward-planning on the clubÃ¢ÂÂs part for ÃÂechÃ¢ÂÂs eventual succession, which is not forecast to happen in the near future.
The 6ft 6in 19-year-old is on loan at Atletico Madrid where he has steadily impressed. A man of the match performance against Sevilla was a particular highlight. It was one of seven clean sheets he has achieved in 15 appearances so far in all competitions. He still has a lot of improving to do, particularly in judging crosses, before legitimately challenging ÃÂech for his place, though he isnÃ¢ÂÂt exactly lacking in confidence.
Villas-Boas was forced to comment on an interview attributed to Courtois with the Spanish radio station Onda Cero in October when it was reported he said: Ã¢ÂÂChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs goalkeeping coach told me he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt know how much time ÃÂech can play at the top level. I know he has problems in his knees and on his back. Chelsea told me to spend two years at a club like Atletico. After that one season in an English team so I can integrate myself into the Premier League.Ã¢ÂÂ
In a press conference, Villas-Boas retorted: Ã¢ÂÂA statement has come out from CourtoisÃ¢ÂÂs agent and the situation has been addressed. He has been misled on his information and he has been unfortunate with his quotes because he felt the other way around.IÃ¢ÂÂ
For now, ÃÂech remains one of the best `keepers in Europe, even though the heights he once scaled, which only a select few of his generation have reached, seem beyond consistent attainment. ThatÃ¢ÂÂs not a slight on ÃÂech. Maintaining a world-class quality of performance over a prolonged period of time is a formidable challenge for any athlete, particularly when injuries, no matter how big or small, affect the mechanics of a goalkeeper, from their take-off leg to their reach. Age can dull reaction times, although thatÃ¢ÂÂs less of a concern in this case and one can also point to the precedent of Dino Zoff winning a World Cup at the age of 40.
It is unlikely, of course, that ÃÂech will get a similar chance with a mediocre Czech Republic side, one that had been ranked second in the world by FIFA as recently as five years ago but now finds itself in 47th place, below the likes of Venezuela, Iran and Wales. BÃÂlek is their fourth manager since the snowy-haired sage Karel BrÃÂ¼ckner left his post in 2008, and the next Pavel NedvÃÂd, Jan Koller or Karel PoborskÃÂ½ is yet to materialise. ÃÂech, along with ArsenalÃ¢ÂÂs TomÃÂ¡Ã Â¡ RosickÃÂ½ and GalatasarayÃ¢ÂÂs Milan BaroÃ Â¡, is one of the few survivors of that era.
A lot of responsibility rests on their shoulders against the strongly favoured Montenegro of Mirko VuÃÂiniÃÂ and Stevan JovetiÃÂ. No wonder BÃÂlek is sweating on ÃÂechÃ¢ÂÂs fitness. If the Chelsea `keeper has to play with a scrum cap and a mask, he wonÃ¢ÂÂt care, just as long as Batman Returns and gives the Czech Republic a fighting chance of qualifying for next summerÃ¢ÂÂs European Championship.