Four English clubs will still be involved when the Champions' League resumes in February, but who will be keeping goal for them? And with what degree of proficiency? There are two main contenders for the position at each of the clubs concerned, and Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool have oscillated between them this season, confirming the suspicion that they cannot be entirely happy with either man. Meanwhile, Chelsea's Jose Mourinho has unwaveringly backed Petr Cech, whom he bought in July, thereby giving himself a different headache: how to keep happy a talented reserve who sits in the dug-out week after week waiting for League Cup matches.
Bob Wilson, goalkeeping coach at Arsenal for 28 years until retiring two seasons ago, is better qualified than most to assess the current crop, and also more sympathetic to them. "People have got to understand that never in the history of the game has it been as difficult to be a goalkeeper at the top level," he says. "It's always been hard enough without the added responsibility of playing as sweeper, needing a brilliant first touch [because of the back-pass rule], risking being sent off if you dive at someone's feet, and the ball being of joke proportions."
Despite making allowances for that, however, he does not see the necessary level of consistency anywhere in the Premiership - even at Chelsea, where the 6ft 6in Cech has been conceding goals at a rate of less than one every two games. "I don't think there are any automatic No 1s in the modern game. I saw Cech play really poorly two or three weeks ago, I thought he was really, really poor against Arsenal last Sunday, genuinely poor throughout in everything he did."
Mourinho clearly did not blame his goalkeeper for Thierry Henry's quick free-kick, taken when Cech was standing on one post lining up the wall, though others felt that both coach and keeper should have been better prepared. But Carlo Cudicini must wait, it seems, for the League Cup semi-final next month to play again. He has indicated that he will stick with Chelsea for the remainder of a season holding promise of great things for the club, however peripheral a part he may play. After that the lure of a return to Italy may prove too strong. Waiting in the wings that long would not appeal to Wilson, even on a Chelsea salary: "If I played in the present day and I was dropped, I'd be right in the manager's face. You've got to play. I can't believe people who just accept the salary and a decent living and say, 'I was on the bench when so-and-so won the European Cup'."
A move across the Thames to Highbury has been mooted for Cudicini, but Arsène Wenger is insisting publicly that he does not need another goalkeeper at present. Last weekend he confounded everyone by persisting with Manuel Almunia ahead of the more experienced Jens Lehmann for such a critical game against Chelsea; a choice with a certain brave logic, in that dropping the Spaniard after only three games would have shattered his confidence for the forseeable future. Wenger was vindicated and Wilson was pleased for him, despite occasional disagreements in the past over the merits of various Arsenal keepers: "That is Arsène, he's so brave in his decisions. He'll listen, and read all the general consensus and go totally the other way. He's renowned for doing that. I'd sit with him and argue with him about goalkeepers and say 'you don't understand' but the bottom line was he had to make the decision, it was his job on the line.
"Arsène's a very hard taskmaster. He gets so upset by things like a last-minute goal at Liverpool that he thinks, 'who should be blamed?' But the blame should go to the people who allowed the ball to bounce and Neil Mellor to strike it. I don't think anybody could really think that the goalie made a real ricket with that."
Nor with Chelsea's goals at Highbury, the first of which, headed in unopposed by John Terry, exposed the imperfections of marking zonally at set pieces. Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry were left marking space at a corner, and space, as we are often reminded, has never scored a goal. In contrast, nine of the 22 conceded by Arsenal in the Premiership this season have come from free-kicks, corners and crosses.
Liverpool - and their goalkeepers - have faced similar problems as Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek have fought to establish themselves this season amid sometimes inadequate protection. Signed, a little bizarrely, on the same August deadline day three years ago, the pair have alternated ever since, held back by injury and inconsistency respectively. The prediction by Rafael Benitez (another zonal marking man) that Kirkland could be England's goalkeeper for the next 10 years was reminiscent of Ron Greenwood saying many moons ago that a young Mervyn Day would do the same for West Ham; Day lasted barely half that time, getting "grand ideas" and failing to work hard enough, according to Greenwood.
Whatever Kirkland's work ethic, another injury has just struck at the wrong moment, partly explaining his poor performance in last week's Mersey derby, and not encouraging Wilson, who says: "I watch his development and ask people who work with him and they all say potentially he's the best [young English keeper], better than Paul Robinson or anyone else. But the injuries seem to have stunted his progress and he's not then shown the confidence of Jerzy Dudek - who I still think is a chancer. Dudek takes chances as he did the other night against Portsmouth: here comes a cross, let me edge out, and if the ball's then hit at goal, you're struggling to make up the space and it makes you look stupid."
Like Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson is constantly being linked with other goalkeepers, having already tried seven of them since Peter Schmeichel left Old Trafford in 1999. Tim Howard impressed him immediately and was given most of last season, despite being harshly blamed for Porto's winning goal in the Champions' League tie; now Roy Carroll has the jersey, undermining some solid performances and a lot of clean sheets with the occasional howler and a reluctance to accept United's terms for a new contract. So, in a world of goalkeeping uncertainty, the merest hint dropped to the newspapers that someone of the quality of Newcastle's Shay Given might be available generates a buzz.
And who is the best of them all at present? For all his experience and professional expertise, Wilson finds it impossible to tell. "I could go through a lot of outfield positions and say, for instance, Ashley Cole's the best left-back, But I don't think I could say it about any goalkeeper anywhere. Because the modern game's made it impossible to be consistent."Reuse content