Saturday 15 December 2018

Cech's milestones and millstones in Gunners DNA of triumph and disaster

Cech: 200th clean sheet. Photo: REUTERS
Cech: 200th clean sheet. Photo: REUTERS

Jonathan Liew

The DVD had been sitting unwatched in Petr Cech's bag for four days. He'd been putting it off. Partly because, with a Champions League final to prepare for, he had plenty of other things to deal with. Partly because he had somehow convinced himself the game would be settled in normal time. But partly because, if he was going to be brutally honest with himself, it was going to be a pretty boring watch.

But on the flight over to Germany ahead of the game, Cech finally gritted his teeth and pulled the DVD out of its sleeve. It contained footage of every single penalty Bayern Munich had taken in the last five years. Over the course of two hours, Cech pored over every single frame: taking notes, learning traits, scanning every minuscule twitch and shuffle for clues.

And that was the story of how Petr Cech guessed the right way for all six of the penalties he faced in the 2012 Champions League final.

Six years on, Cech no longer stands at the pinnacle of world goalkeeping. He no longer commands a penalty area as he did in his peak.

Never blessed with the quickest of feet, he is more prone to a rushed clearance or an unwise sortie than he ever was. He is a reliable bulwark, rather than the raging bull that first stormed into English football 14 years ago in a Chelsea team that seemed to set new standards for Premier League defensive play.

But at the age of 35, that reliability remains the very foundation of his appeal.

"Consistency is always the most difficult in life," his manager Arsene Wenger said after the 3-0 win against Watford on Sunday that brought up the milestone of 200 Premier League clean sheets.

And so it seems an appropriate time to recognise a player who in a league of weekly churn and permanent revolution, mood swings and snap judgments, stands out for his simple timelessness.

Some are more easily remembered than others. There are the milestones, of course: No 1 against Manchester United in 2004, No 100 against Bolton in 2010. But a few others stick in the memory. Like No 19, against Blackburn in 2005, "a hard match full of fighting", as he puts it, when he saved a Paul Dickov penalty and beat Peter Schmeichel's record for Premier League minutes without conceding.

One thing we can say with confidence is that Cech's record will not be beaten for many years. Joe Hart is his nearest active challenger on 122, and is unlikely to bridge the gap playing for West Ham.

Further back you have David de Gea on 90, Simon Mignolet on 80, Hugo Lloris on 72, all of whom may get to 200 eventually. By which time, of course, Cech may have raised the bar even further.

"I don't want to be greedy," he told his official website.

"But if I play two or three more seasons, it could increase highly. It's my job. A man trains hard every day to win at the weekend and not to concede a goal. Zero is a base for the goalkeeper, but not everything. I always say I would rather win 5-4 than tie 0-0."

Of course, ever since Cech joined Arsenal he has found the zeros a little harder to come by. It could scarcely be otherwise, having spent most of his career playing behind some of the best defenders of the Premier League era - John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic.

By contrast, you suspect that there are certain days at Arsenal when Cech looks at the back four in front of him and realises that he might be having a busier afternoon than he was anticipating.

In a strange way, Cech's three seasons at Arsenal have been the biggest test of his career.

For a player who thrives on routine and rhythm, one of the Premier League's most turbulent clubs was always going to be a culture shock.

Pretty much the only times in his career when he came remotely close to kicking up a stink was when that routine was disrupted: in 2009, when Luiz Felipe Scolari made a sudden and unexplained change to the goalkeeping training schedules, and then in his final season at Chelsea, when the loss of his place to Thibaut Courtois forced him to seek a move.

And so his value to Arsenal, a club who occasionally feel like they are passing the time between crises, has been incalculable.

Though he has not been immune to the same fluctuations, he has ridden the lows better than most. And for all Arsenal's current issues, there are few at the Emirates who pine for the likes of Wojciech Szczesny and Manuel Almunia, an era when Arsenal's No 1 felt like their No 1 problem.

"His situation in two weeks has shown what football is," Wenger said.

"In one week, he's gone from hell to heaven. That's how can life can be. I like both situations, because in the first situation he's shown a lot of humility and responsibility. A record like that witnesses a lot of motivation and a huge level of intelligence. You don't last for such a long time in the game if you're not intelligent."

That was evident again on Sunday, and there was a certain neat justice in the fact that as on the greatest night of his career, Cech's 200th clean sheet also came courtesy of a penalty save: this time from Troy Deeney, again after guessing the right way to dive.

It may end up being just the merest sliver of respite in an otherwise gruelling season. But as bad as things are for Arsenal at the moment, without Cech they could be a whole lot worse. (© Independent News Service)

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