FOOTBALL: Title in safe keeping of Petr the great

Chelsea's No 1 asset: Record-breaking goalkeeper salutes team's winning mentality - you can put your shirt on it
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The Independent Online
They summoned up an image of unreconstructed cavemen - well, if you ignore the waxed torsos - pumped up with testosterone, celebrating the blood of a kill. Desmond Morris could have penned a slim volume on Wednesday night's post-match exhibition from Chelsea's exuberant players at Ewood Park: Champions-elect Watching maybe?

Among them, Petr Cech, who had arrived in England seven months ago, when he was widely presumed to be a mere understudy to Carlo Cudicini, but who now stands tall in a land of so many fall guys and is recognised as the country's finest custodian, if not Europe's. Some would even say the world's.

He had entered into the spirit of the night, hurling his goalkeeper's jersey into the grasping hands of the Chelsea travelling supporters. There could be no doubting the conviction of Cech and his team-mates that this was a defining moment in Chelsea's extraordinary season.

So what accounted for the outburst of triumph-alism instigated by a hyped- up manager, Jose Mourinho, who had stage-managed the impromptu strip show?

The 1-0 victory for Chelsea had been a pretty wretched affair, impoverished of fluid football, save for Arjen Robben's early winner. Even the magnificent penalty save from Cech, helping preserve his and Chelsea's record of Premiership victories and defensive efficiency - that is now 781 minutes without conceding a goal - could not explain such delirium.

Not unless one appreciates the combined effect of that result and Manchester United's triumph at Highbury the previous night which had strengthened Chelsea's grip on the title.

"Manchester United were eight points behind us, and they were maybe hoping that we would drop points against Blackburn, because it's always difficult to play there," Cech explains on Friday at Chelsea's training complex in Cobham, Surrey. "Maybe they thought we were under pressure, but we proved that we can handle the situation. Blackburn had a great physical presence, but we showed that we can fight, that we can play football, and that it's really difficult to beat us. We managed the pressure from the [Arsenal-United] game on Tuesday and we won. That was why we celebrated like that afterwards."

However, he emphasises that such a response does not suggest that Chelsea believe the championship is their property yet. "We know what we are playing for, and we know we are still a long way away from the title," he says. "Of course we can be beaten, but our mentality is really strong. Other teams all know it's going to be difficult to go through our defence. They also know it's going to be hard to defend well against us because of the great players in our attack, who can turn games."

Cech has a specific explanation for his elation that night; the fact that he had overtaken the record of a goalkeeper of iconic status, a man he grew up determined to emulate. "Of course I'm proud," he says. "Peter Schmeichel is one of the greatest, one of the best goalkeepers ever in football. When I was young, he was one of my model players.

"As a boy, I watched everybody and I always tried to take the best from each goalkeeper in the world. At the time, there was Schmeichel, [Edwin] Van der Sar when he started playing for Ajax and Juventus, and Gianluigi Buffon."

After only a little more than half a season at the Bridge, performances of distinction for the Czech Republic in Euro 2004 (when five clean sheets helped his country to a semi-final place), two seasons at the French club Rennes, and those early years at Sparta Prague, Cech has already demonstrated a right to be included among that illustrious group.

"I don't think I'm the best yet," he says. "But I feel that as I am only 22, I can still improve if I keep working at my game and benefit from the experience I am getting from playing in England and international games. I feel I can be better in a few years."

If the diffident Cech has a fault, it is the absence of a commanding voice in the penalty area. Certainly, he possesses precious little of Schmeichel's tendency for eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with his own defenders. "Everybody is different," Cech says dismissively. "You have to have a feeling for the players in front of you. Sometimes if you believe someone is unlucky and he doesn't feel very good, there is no reason to scream. It depends on the situation."

The truth is that, where Chelsea are concerned, there is such cohesion within the rearguard that Cech rarely has cause to castigate them anyway. Eight League goals conceded all season is testimony to that fact. "The important thing is that it is never just about four defenders and one goalkeeper. We are playing defensively well as a team," Cech insists. "When we lose the ball, everybody is trying to win it back."

As we talk, Roman Abramovich is apparently on the premises. Men wearing earpieces hover by a black Mercedes, positioned to transport the Chelsea owner to his next appointment. However, even the Russian would concede that just now the most important security guard on his payroll is a tracksuited 6ft 5in, 22-year-old, who has been unbeaten in eight successive Premiership games.

Another personal target is already in sight for Cech: his own record of 903 minutes without conceding a goal during his time at Sparta Prague. A ninth blank sheet against Manchester City today at Stamford Bridge would make a major contribution to that, although the fact that Kevin Keegan's men are the only team to have overturned the Premiership leaders this season - by dint of the now-departed Nicolas Anelka's penalty - offers the visitors a hint of expectation.

That match in mid-October, according to Cech, was one of the two significant moments in Chelsea's season, one which began with a new manager, new centre-back (Ricardo Carvalho), new full-back (Paolo Ferreira) and himself, a new goalkeeper. "In the beginning, it was difficult for us, but straight away we showed team spirit and a strong dressing-room and started playing well. Maybe one of the keys was the [opening] game against Manchester United. After that, we knew that even if players are new we could beat United, so we could compete with everyone."

He adds: "We started winning games, and we just kept winning. The next important [moment] was after we lost at Manchester City. People said it would turn everything for us, and we would start to drop points, but we reacted very well [defeating Blackburn 4-0]. Since then, we have not lost [in the League]. It's fantastic for me to be in a squad which is 11 points ahead, with only 13 games to go."

And, it must be added, no fewer than 13 points healthier than Arsenal, whose manager, Arsene Wenger, attempted to sign Cech, not once but twice, when he was at Sparta Prague. "At that time, I was 19 years old, so I wasn't in a [senior] international team, and the Czech Republic weren't in the European Union then, so I couldn't gain a work permit. That's why I didn't join Arsenal."

So he never actually declined the overtures of a manager who, much to his chagrin, has only the suspect Manuel Almunia or Jens Lehmann from whom to select. "I couldn't say no, or yes, because we were waiting for a work permit and it didn't come," Cech says with a smile.

He pauses, before adding: "Maybe because David Seaman, a great goalkeeper, was playing it would have been more difficult to be No 1 at Arsenal. Maybe I was too young then. I thought the best thing for me was to spend two years in France. I could get experience there and learn how to survive in another country. I didn't speak French before, so for me it was very difficult. It was one of the most important steps in my career. Maybe for that reason it was better for me that I couldn't join Arsenal then."

But there were no such qualms about the west Londoners? "I had some other opportunities, but when I heard about Chelsea I decided very quickly. They were very serious. For me, they were one of the biggest clubs in the world. It was my dream when I was a child to play in the Premiership. So, it was an easy decision."

He could never have imagined quite how judicious it would prove.


Petr Cech (Chelsea, 2004-05) Had to save a Paul Dickov penalty at Blackburn to set a Premiership best for consecutive minutes without conceding (now 781 and counting).

Peter Schmeichel (Man Utd, 1997) The great Dane went 694min without letting in a goal, his presence being a prime reason why United dominated the domestic scene.

Chris Woods (Rangers, 1986-87) Holds the record for a British goalkeeper, 1,196min. Adrian Sprott (Hamilton) ended the streak.

Edwin van der Sar (Ajax, 1995-96) During his earlier days in Holland, the current Fulham keeper totalled 846min before his run was broken.

Ray Clemence (Liverpool, 1972-81) Anfield and England legend who featured in 665 games for Liverpool, keeping a clean sheet in 335 of them.

Dino Zoff (Italy, 1972-74) Last line of Azzurri defence, he kept all opposition out for an international- record 1,142min before Haiti struck in the 1974 World Cup finals.

Abel Resno (Atletico Madrid, 1990-91) After going a world-record 1,275min without conceding, he was beaten by Enrique of Sporting Gijon.