Cech 'even better than before'

Chelsea v Nottm Forest: Strength of character and fearless spirit lift stricken keeper to new heights
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The Independent Online

It's three Saturdays ago and Chelsea have just beaten a poor Wigan Athletic side 4-0. Nevertheless, the crisis over the future of Jose Mourinho and whether he will be able to make any January signings has already erupted. With a typical piece of bravura, the manager declares: "On Monday I have a £50 million player. And we don't have to pay to have him."

That Monday, Petr Cech returned to full training after fracturing his skull in that horrific injury against Reading last October. He may be the world's best goalkeeper - but £50m? In answering a question on how he now feels, having returned to the first team, Cech offers an insight into that valuation.

"Against Wycombe [last Tuesday in the Carling Cup semi-final] I felt back to my best, I had the same feelings I had on the pitch before [the collision], I felt really well." But there's an addition: "In terms of physical strength, speed and ability I think I might be even better than I was before, because I have been working so hard."

Even better? No wonder Mourinho stuck a few extra million on what it would take to buy the goalkeeper who arrived from the French club Rennes for £7m at the same time as the manager two-and-a-half years ago but, as with Arjen Robben, was a signing that had already been agreed.

At present it appears Cech will also stay longer at Stamford Bridge than Mourinho. Both have deals that run until 2010 but, given the rift between him and the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, the Portuguese has decided to quit this summer and may be sacked in any case.

Speaking at Chelsea's training ground on Friday, ahead of today's fourth-round FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest, Cech chats warmly about the League One side's history and achievements and how their fans will hope they can rekindle some of those memories by defeating the Premiership champions. The 24-year-old from Plzen, the famous brewery town in the Czech Republic, also acknowledges the achievements of Brian Clough - even though those European Cups were won before Cech was born.

But what about the young Big 'Ead? What about Mourinho? "You need to feel the confidence of your manager," Cech explains, "and he's been giving me that confidence. For me it's the best moment of my career to have this manager on my side and trusting me. Of course we want to do the best for the manager, the best for the club and the best for our individual needs as well. Everyone wants to win the games, everyone wants to be first, everyone wants to win trophies. Our only concern is winning matches and, for the manager, it's a big help for him when you keep winning."

But does he think, to be blunt, that Mourinho will stay? "It's important to keep the best manager and best players at the club," Cech says diplomatically. "For me personally I'm only a player, I can only do my best on the pitch and it's not in my hands to change things at the club. I will give my 100 per cent for me, the manager, the club, everyone."

It is in Cech's hands, however, to change things on the field. He has been missed, and his absence has been felt as keenly as that of John Terry. Coming back into the Chelsea side, does Cech sense a change? "The only difference is that in all the games before, when I played, I had at least one central defender in front of me on the pitch," he says of the problems the squad has suffered. "But with injuries and suspensions it has been difficult, psychologically as well, because we didn't have any [centre-halves] against Liverpool. It's also difficult because you prepare for the game one way and then the last defender [Ricardo Carvalho] got ill before the game."

Liverpool, last Saturday, was his comeback from what happened just 16 seconds into the Premiership game at the Madejski Stadium last autumn, when he skidded across the turf to reach the ball and was struck on the head by the knee of midfielder Stephen Hunt as he ran through. Cech remembers nothing of the controversial incident and does not want to dwell on it now - and certainly is not interested in talking to the young Irishman over what happened. "I haven't spoken to him so I don't know what is his explanation," Cech replies curtly.

With a metal plate inserted into his head and medical opinion claiming it may take up to three years for the bone to heal completely, it was feared Cech might be out of the game for 12 months. He was determined to come back sooner and, psychologically, believes there are no scars. "I think it's just something you have to have, naturally," he says of his mental strength. "When I'm injured all I care about is to do everything I can to get back as soon as possible. I did it the same way when I had a shoulder operation (before the start of the season) and I did it the same way when I had the head operation. I had no doubts that I would come back."

He is still on medication, although he hopes to stop taking it "in the next few days", to ensure against epileptic fits, and is not allowed to drive. Cech, also, of course has to wear a bespoke headguard, designed by a New Zealand-based company, Canterbury, who specialise in rugby equipment, including scrum- caps, until experts are satisfied there is no danger of further problems. Extra plastic polymer foam protection was added to cover the areas of his skull weakened by the collision.

Cech admits "there was a lot of pressure" on him to make a comeback as swiftly as possible. "Everyone wanted to see me in goal and see me as strong as before," he says. He did not feel that was the case against Liverpool, a game lost 2-0, although he is adamant that he was not fearful of getting injured again. He was more worried about the six-point lead Manchester United hold over Chelsea.

"But I think we have now gone through the difficult period, with injuries, and the gap is not bigger than it was before," Cech maintains. "It has stayed six points and that's the main reason why we can be confident and look forward to the next games. The players are getting back and, of course, we needed to stay positive. We lost the game against Liverpool, Man United lost to Arsenal. We could see they were not invincible. We will play against them and they have other difficult games to play. They have dropped points and can drop points again."

Soon Terry should follow him back into the team, while Cech believes that Andriy Shevchenko can now fire, claiming the striker has suffered the same kind of post-World Cup hangover and injury problems that dogged Thierry Henry in December. "He, too, could not reach his level," Cech says, "but now he's back. Two games, two goals. It's the same with Sheva."

Their problems pale next to the trauma suffered by Cech, who talks about the "destiny of injuries" and how that simply cannot be changed. Such sagacity, and strength of spirit, is probably what makes him the player he is - one that, Mourinho believes, is worth that £50m.

The Cech File: From Pilsen beer to champagne

Born 20 May 1982, Plzen, Czechoslovakia.

Vital Stats 6ft 5in, 13st 7lb.

Early Doors Rennes (2002-04, 70 appearances); Sparta Prague (2001-02, 38); Blasny (1999-2001, 26).

International Career 44 caps for Czech Republic, debut v Cyprus, 2002; European Under-21 Championship winners, 2002.

Mourinho's No 1 Joined Chelsea from Rennes in France in 2004 for £7m. 100 appearances, 0 goals.

Records Holds English Premiership records for not conceding a goal in 1,025 minutes of play and for the most clean sheets in a Premiership season, 25, both set in the 2004-05 season.

Chelsea with Cech 2006-07

P/W /D /L/F/A/GD

10/8 /1 /1 /18/5/+13 - 6 clean sheets

Chelsea without Cech 2006-07

P/W/D/L/F/A/GD

24/14/6/4/47/17/+30 - 12 clean sheets

Sam Betts

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