Czech chances of Euro qualification hinge on Petr's head being right

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Referee Mike Dean stopped play at Ewood Park for seven minutes on Saturday as Chelsea’s medical staff tended to Petr Čech’s bloodied nose.

The goalkeeper had put himself in harm’s 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.  “What can I say about Petr?” Andre Villas-Boas mused after the match. “He is very injury prone in football and all sorts of things have happened to him.”

A medial ligament injury meant Čech 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 Sá.

“My head went back like when you get a right hook in boxing,” Čech said. “What happened, I don’t know. I think the helmet took most of the impact. I had a concussion. When I came inside the dressing room I couldn’t see properly and I didn’t have the awareness of the space.”

Thoughts inevitably turned to that afternoon in October 2006 when the right knee of Reading midfielder Stephen Hunt fractured his skull. Čech was out for three months. He has worn a scrum cap ever since, a reminder of the event and the vulnerability of the goalkeeper.

“When I played again after my first injury I said if I need to put my head somewhere I will do it,” Čech insisted. “It’s 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 haven’t felt that.”

His frequent need for treatment indicates he has stayed true to his word. Čech even felt able to laugh about his most recent knock, which threatens to rule him out of the first leg of the Czech Republic’s Euro 2012 play-off against Montenegro at the Stadion Letná in Prague on Friday.

“We’ll 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.” 

Already without Shakhtar midfielder Tomáš Hübschman, suspended for another two matches, Czech Republic coach Michal Bílek faces a dilemma at the back. “A broken nose is a painful injury, particularly for a goalkeeper who can be the target of challenges from tall strikers,” he noted.

“Petr 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.”

With 84 caps, Čech’s 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 week’s trip to Blackburn, Opta revealed that Čech 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

Čech 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 Persie’s hat-trick goal when his positioning was suspect too.

It’s worth asking whether Čech has been left more exposed by Chelsea’s 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, Chelsea’s style of play has perhaps led to Čech facing more high-risk situations. The opposition might be restrained to fewer goal-scoring chances, but the ones they are presented with are ‘clearer’, like a one-on-one for instance.

Čech has wobbled before, notably in the 2007/08 season following the departure of José 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 Čech 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, Čech answered the critics who had described him as a shadow of his former self. “I always question why people say that,” he said. “I do the analysis of my game with the people who work at the club and if someone says: ‘He’s not the same’, then I’m happy to take all the analysis of my performances for someone to judge…

“When 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.”

The Dark Knight rises...or something

Proving the doubters wrong, Čech bounced back again and was named Chelsea’s Player of the Year. Still, the notion persists that he is in slow decline.  It’s worth bearing in mind that Čech 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 [25] at Bayern, David de Gea [20] at Manchester United, Yann Sommer [22] at Basel and Wojciech Szczęsny [21] 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 Čech is behind him.

Yet that presumption is not entirely fair and seems premature, even if Chelsea’s acquisition of the precocious Thibaut Courtois from Genk in the summer for £7.9 million shows forward-planning on the club’s part for Čech’s 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 Čech for his place, though he isn’t 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: “Chelsea’s goalkeeping coach told me he doesn’t know how much time Čech 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.” 

In a press conference, Villas-Boas retorted: “A statement has come out from Courtois’s 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.I”

For now, Čech 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. That’s not a slight on Čech. 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 that’s 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 Čech 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. Bílek is their fourth manager since the snowy-haired sage Karel Brückner left his post in 2008, and the next Pavel Nedvěd, Jan Koller or Karel Poborský is yet to materialise. Čech, along with Arsenal’s Tomáš Rosický and Galatasaray’s Milan Baroš, is one of the few survivors of that era.

A lot of responsibility rests on their shoulders against the strongly favoured Montenegro of Mirko Vučinić and Stevan Jovetić. No wonder Bílek is sweating on Čech’s fitness. If the Chelsea `keeper has to play with a scrum cap and a mask, he won’t care, just as long as Batman Returns and gives the Czech Republic a fighting chance of qualifying for next summer’s European Championship.