Chelsea could ask the Football Association to charge Steve Hunt, the Reading winger, with violent conduct after their goalkeeper, Petr Cech, yesterday underwent surgery for a fractured skull and is unlikely to play again until Christmas with more drastic reports last night claiming he could even be out for the season.
Chelsea are furious about Hunt's challenge on Cech in the opening seconds of the champions' 1-0 victory at the Madejski Stadium. Cech suffered a depressed fracture of the skull and the Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho and his colleagues feared for his life.
However, early indications are that the FA may not charge Hunt and, even if it did, would not find the 26-year-old Irishman guilty. This is sure to intensify Mourinho's glowering certainty that the world is against him, especially as Chelsea's fitness coach, Rui Faria, may be charged for throwing a punch in a touchline mêlée late in the game.
Cech was operated on at the Radcliffe Infirmary's neurosurgical unit in Oxford after being moved from the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. In a statement yesterday, Chelsea said: "The operation was successful but it is too early for an accurate assessment of his condition."
Carlo Cudicini, Cech's understudy, was also taken to the Royal Berkshire after being knocked out in injury-time. It also emerged last night that Cudicini swallowed his tongue during the incident but he was still released from hospital late on Saturday night.
With Cech expected to be out for months, and Cudicini to be sidelined for 10 days, Hilario, Chelsea's third goalkeeper, will have to face Barcelona in the Champions' League on Wednesday. Mourinho spoke with confidence of his compatriot, noting he had played Manchester United and Barcelona in past Champions' League ties, but he omitted to mention Hilario conceded 10 goals in those three fixtures.
Mourinho's immediate concern was the health of his players. "Barcelona is just a football match," he said. "I'm more interested in my players, my two friends." He felt that Cudicini's injury, caused by a mid-air collision with Ibrahima Sonko, was accidental but accused Hunt of seeking to hurt Cech. "Hunt clearly flexed his leg to catch Petr. He dropped his knee. He didn't go with the foot to try to touch the ball. He went with his knee at the keeper's head. On every pitch, every game, players jump over keepers. When the keeper already has the ball in his hands, what are you going in to do? You are only going in to hurt him."
Mourinho compared the incident to Ben Thatcher's assault on Pedro Mendes, for which the Manchester City defender received an eight-match ban. The Chelsea manager added: "Hunt must be punished like everybody else."
Speaking before knowing the extent of Cech's injury, he said: "I'm not sure if he is a Catholic, but if he is he should go to the shrine at Fatima because he is lucky to be alive. It was that bad. I can't say Hunt intended to send Petr to hospital. I don't say he did. But it was a stupid challenge, a challenge that should have brought a red card. It is one thing to break a leg, or an arm. It is another thing to break your head. That is the injury that scares you most. If Petr Cech's mother at home knows he has broken his leg she is not happy but she is not worried. But when someone's family knows you have had a knee in the head and you've gone to hospital as a consequence, you do worry about that."
A Chelsea statement said: "We have reviewed the video and fully endorse the post-match comments of Jose. We will be writing to the FA with observations."
The club have the incident on their website, though the picture of a goalkeeper in a neck brace is of Cudicini, not Cech. But an FA source said that as Mike Riley, the referee, saw the incident and gave a free-kick, the only way it could take action was if it was clear Hunt sought to hurt Cech. Proving that intent, on the basis of the video evidence, was difficult.
In a post-match statement, Hunt said he "was 100 per cent intent on winning the ball". Steve Coppell, Reading's manager, said: "It looks horrible but there's no way Hunty went in there to try to damage the keeper."
The FA will wait for Riley's report before taking action over Faria. He was sent off, along with Kevin Dillon, Reading's coach, for being involved in an injury-time fracas. Faria appeared to swing a punch after Dillon had gone towards the Chelsea dug-out to retrieve the ball as Reading tried to take a quick throw-in.
Who can keep Barça out? The two men in the firing line to face Champions' League holders
* HENRIQUE HILARIO M ALVES SAMPAIO (known as Hilario)
Height: 6ft 4in
Nationality: Portuguese Signed from Nacional Madeira (2006)
Experience: A former under-21 international who came through the ranks at Porto but subsequently spent much of his time being loaned out. He did play under Jose Mourinho in 2003-04 but was not involved in the Champions' League success, being sent out on loan midway through the season. As Victor Baia's understudy, he played in the Champions' League in 1997, but he admitted to being "frozen with fear" when he was beaten four times by Manchester United at Old Trafford.
* YVES MAKABA-MA KALAMBAY
Height: 6ft 5in
Signed: from PSV Eindhoven (2003)
Experience: Never played a first-team match anywhere but has represented Belgium at youth level and has a smattering of appearances on the bench for Chelsea and Watford (while on loan in February)