With 20 minutes played at the Vicente Calderon on Tuesday night, there was just one line of encouragement necessary from Jose Mourinho as Mark Schwarzer fastened his gloves and crossed the touchline. "He [Mourinho] said, 'Listen … belief. Believe in your own ability,'" Schwarzer recalled later. "And that was it. It was a reassurance that he believes and I need to believe and make sure I go out there and play my game."
One clean sheet later, as the last line of a redoubtable Chelsea defensive display against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-final first leg, Schwarzer was trying to suppress his delight that a calculated career gamble might just have paid off handsomely.
At 41, he is the oldest player ever to feature in a Champions League knockout tie, having made his debut in the competition earlier this season against Steaua Bucharest. He made the decision to come to Chelsea in the summer, and accept a role as a No 2 for nights like these, although it took that awkward fall from Petr Cech on 17 minutes to give him his chance.
With Cech now all but out for the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder, the chance presented to Schwarzer is the one that all reserve goalkeepers secretly hope for, but can never permit themselves to articulate. Speaking on Tuesday in the aftermath of the game, Schwarzer said that his relationship with Cech was strong and that he hoped the injury was not serious, but he could hardly ignore the opportunity that has been presented.
On how he had coped with the reserve goalkeeper's challenge of being in a perpetual state of readiness, without any guarantee of playing, he joked that his entrance from the substitutes' bench had been the classic Superman act: "Did you not see me rip off my pants?
"I actually didn't think it [the injury to Cech] was that serious. I was offering some of the guys some chewing gum at the time. There was a couple of movements of players saying he is signalling to come off. Then the manager was saying, 'Settle down, settle down everyone', and I was just warming up. And then came the realisation that you are going to come on and you just have to get ready and get on.
"I won't deny that there were nerves to begin with. But once you get on the pitch you settle pretty quickly and we dealt with the corner easily in the end. I think from that point onwards I was able to settle into the game quickly."
Schwarzer was a losing finalist in the Uefa Cup with Middlesbrough in 2006, and in its subsequent incarnation as the Europa League, with Fulham four years later when the winners were Atletico. Since joining Chelsea he has retired from international football and will not be in the Australia squad at the World Cup this summer. That decision was made after he was overlooked for two friendlies, a consequence of his lack of game time at Chelsea.
"I am always ready [to play] and it is difficult. For me it has been a new experience and I am not going to deny it has been tough, it has been. I have made a decision and it has been great in a lot of ways, because the experiences I have been able to have being part of the team I wouldn't have experienced anywhere else. You know that somewhere down the line you will get an opportunity if there is an injury or an illness or whatever and this was one of those opportunities again.
"The opportunity to sign for Chelsea and be part of this was too great, in the end. I suppose you could write a book about it one day and say this is how it unfolded. You'd never believe it but it just happens. We are one step closer. We are at half-time in the game. It is 0-0 and we can't underestimate them. They have quality all over the pitch and they can score from anywhere and we need to make sure we play at our best in the return leg."
Schwarzer, who played his first Premier League game for Chelsea last Saturday, with Cech ill, his seventh appearance of the season, has a one-year contract. Another assured performance from Thibaut Courtois for Atletico, coupled with the injury to Cech, once again raises questions over how long the on loan Belgian will be made to wait before returning to his parent club Chelsea as first choice.
"He [Courtois] is a phenomenal talent," Schwarzer said. "He's done extremely well for Atletico and played extremely well for Belgium. This is a massive year for him with the World Cup, title aspirations at Atletico as well as the Champions League. It's a huge, huge year for him and there will be quite a lot of decisions made shortly about people's futures. We'll wait and see. He's a huge talent."
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