No guarantees but Cech has the right assets

Cudicini's status as No 1 at the Bridge faces a stern test
Click to follow
The Independent Football

"Speak slowly, his English is not so good," counsels the press officer for the Czech Republic national team as Petr Cech, Chelsea's latest recruit, ambles over from training. His warning proves to be over-cautious. Cech's grasp of the language is as keen as his eagerness to play in the Premiership.

"Speak slowly, his English is not so good," counsels the press officer for the Czech Republic national team as Petr Cech, Chelsea's latest recruit, ambles over from training. His warning proves to be over-cautious. Cech's grasp of the language is as keen as his eagerness to play in the Premiership.

"It's a great thing for me," he says of the move, for £7.2m, from Rennes in France that will be completed in the summer. "But first it is Euro 2004 and that is most important. After that comes Chelsea. I'm just taking it step by step."

Giant steps at that. Not 22 until next month, Cech stands 6ft 5in tall. Already he has experienced almost four years of first-team football and, in 16 international appearances, has yet to walk off the field on the beaten side. In midweek, when the Republic of Ireland became the first nation to beat the Czechs for nearly two-and-a-half years, Cech had already been substituted. Both goals were scored in the second half after he departed having, in truth, had little to do in the first 45 minutes.

Nevertheless, it was his second game in four days after he had missed almost two months because of a damaged elbow. "I'm just happy to be back," he says standing by the pitch at Lansdowne Road in Dublin before last Wednesday's friendly. Despite the chilly air, sweat is pouring from him, such had been his astonishing exertions during training, in which he displayed a voracious appetite.

Little wonder Cech is already being talked about, despite his age, as his nation's greatest-ever goalkeeper. Miroslav Beranek, his former manager at Sparta Prague, who sold him to Rennes for £3m, is unequivocal. "I think he is the most talented goalkeeper in Czech history," he says. "He has fantastic reflexes. There is one very important thing: Petr is an intelligent young man and he knows what he wants."

And after Euro 2004 - with the Czechs as dark horses - he aims to replace Carlo Cudicini as Chelsea's No 1 after agreeing a five-year contract which quadruples his salary and comes into force in July. "It's up to me to show that I'm better and that I deserve to play," he says. "I have to show what I'm capable of, but I'm very competitive and I like nothing more than a good challenge. I'm ready to eat him if need be."

Cudicini, four inches shorter, had better beware, even if he has 22 clean sheets this season. That's if he remains at Stamford Bridge; one of the clubs Cech turned down, Internazionale, are apparently planning a bid for Cudicini instead. "I have had good proposals, not just from Chelsea [Barcelona also expressed interest], but I decided to join Chelsea and now I'm very happy," he says. "I felt that the interest was much more real. That is the reason why I want to go to London."

Cech - pronounced "check" - also has a sharp sense of humour, and has talked with slight embarrassment about his almost teetotal approach. Embarrassment because he comes from the famous Czech brewing town of Plzen. At Chelsea, he will take nothing for granted. "I'm very proud that a big club like Chelsea came to get me. I knew straightaway that I wanted to go there. Nobody has guaranteed me a first-team place. Cudicini had a super season last year. I think we'll begin the season on the same line and we'll just have to battle it out."

Nevertheless, Cech has also said he is sure Chelsea didn't spend so much money on him so that he "sat on the bench" - although that may display an ignorance of their infuriating squad-rotation system. His international manager, Karel Bruckner, has no doubt about the impact he will make, and laughs when asked if the player will cope with the Premiership. "For sure," he says.

Cech first sprang to prominence three years ago, when he made his Champions' League debut for Sparta against Bayern Munich in the Olympic Stadium. He came up against his hero, Oliver Kahn, and later swapped shirts, but it was Cech who was outstanding that night in securing a goalless draw. He was quickly elevated to the Czech Under-21 team and they won the European Championships in 2002, with Cech saving three penalties in the final shoot-out against France. Suddenly he was hot property, setting a Czech club record of 903 minutes without conceding a goal, and, mindful that he wanted to end up in England, agreeing a move to Brittany.

"I'm sure that the French League is nearer to the Premiership than the Czech Republic League," he says. "Rennes has been a good move for me because, apart from helping my old club Sparta by providing them with cash they needed, it allowed me to gain international experience. It's the kind of experience that will stand me in good stead for my move to England." Given the continued machinations at Chelsea, he will almost certainly need it.

Comments