'Camera' Cech gives Gunners real title focus
Cech’s safe hands can give Gunners firm grip on title
When Petr Cech produced a full-length diving save at Stoke on Sunday to deny Joselu before scrambling to his feet to smother Bojan's follow-up, his value to Arsenal was at its most visible. It was another point gained in Arsenal's title challenge but what only a select few subsequently saw was how Cech also gathered his younger team-mates in the away dressing room and told them that they should be proud of this particular goalless draw.
It was a gesture that underlined a wider impact on the Arsenal squad that has been everything that Jose Mourinho clearly feared when he warned Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich against sanctioning Cech's £10million transfer eight miles across London. John Terry famously followed that up by effectively predicting that Cech could single-handedly turn Arsenal into champions and, ahead of Chelsea's visit to the Emirates Stadium tomorrow, little has happened since to suggest that his warning was misplaced.
Arsenal finished 12 points behind Chelsea last season and Terry estimated in June that Cech would improve Arsene Wenger's team by 12-15 points. Guus Hiddink yesterday endorsed Terry's assessment while Bob Wilson, the former Arsenal goalkeeper and coach, believes the final tally will stretch beyond 15.
The consensus is Cech might prove to be the sort of game-changer for Arsenal that Eric Cantona once was for Manchester United. Cantona was the last player to win the English league title in successive seasons for different clubs and it is a feat that Cech could now emulate.
"I think Arsenal are really really close," says Wilson. "John Terry was absolutely on the button about his influence but I would say he is probably worth more than 15 points. It is one of the signings of the season without any doubt. I think we have three 'worldies' at the moment: Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Cech. He is everything Arsene and Arsenal hoped he would be. At this moment, he is the most experienced, best goalkeeper in football. I think Arsenal will have at least five, six, seven years, depending obviously on injury. He is 33 and that is prime time for a goalkeeper. Peter Shilton, David Seaman, Pat Jennings all went on until over 40."
When you consider the respective paths of Chelsea and Arsenal since Cech's departure, it is certainly proving to be the most significant single piece of transfer business last summer. Wenger stressed it had still been a difficult decision because of his high regard for David Ospina but that he felt compelled to act once it became clear that Abramovich would override Mourinho's wishes.
"I didn't know what kind of shape he was in physically because he hadn't played. When I met him I was quickly reassured of his desire to do well and his motivation," Wenger said.
"I didn't know how much he could still produce physically. He hadn't played and was battling a drop in physical aptitude. But I knew the potential was exceptional having played against him 11 years in the Premier League.
"It was a question of physically can he still do it? It was a very, very difficult decision for me because I rate highly Ospina. I have a high opinion of him. Ospina is a keeper who, in my opinion, is underrated, especially in England. But (signing Cech) was maybe one of the few opportunities to say, 'OK, this is an obvious [transfer]. If I don't do this, it would have been a mistake I think'."
In explaining Cech's influence, Wenger also made an intriguing point about his new goalkeeper's on-field "coaching" role. "I consider him now as a real Arsenal player who looks to me as if he's been here forever because he has adapted so well," said Wenger. "He has a calming presence, he communicates well, anticipates well, sees what is coming. He is a kind of coach. The best position to be a coach is the goalkeeper because he doesn't move and he sees everything. He is the camera behind the team."
Cech's presence seems to have helped further develop a counter-attacking dimension that has made Arsenal more dangerous against better opposition. Wenger said that calculating Cech's precise worth was impossible but Hiddink was not arguing with Terry's 15-point assessment.
"Yes," said the Chelsea manager. "Even when you have a season on top, you're not always good in 38 games. You have certain periods, mostly in October and November when the leaves start falling, and then the good goalies save points for your team."
Hiddink said he could understand why Mourinho had opposed Cech's sale and would not say whether he would have agreed the deal. "At certain moments as a club, you have to make a decision," he said. "When is the moment to say goodbye to a player? That's not easy."
After the 'goodbyes' of last summer, there was still an unexpected 'hello' on Wednesday when Cech called into Chelsea's Cobham training ground to collect a delivery of his goalkeeping gloves that had been dispatched to his old address.
"It was nice - we had a chat here," said Hiddink. "Almost everyone had gone. It was already late afternoon. He knew the gloves were here and we tried to hide them. We also tried to make them a little bit slippery, but he discovered that also. We see him weekly."
There is clearly still a lot of affection for Cech at Chelsea. As Wilson puts it: "I think the Chelsea fans will applaud him until the day they die." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Arsenal v Chelsea, live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow, 4.0