As someone who has averaged almost 50 games a season in Chelsea's goal for nine years, Petr Cech is entitled to be heard on the subject of consistency; and the lack of it. He defines it as the area in which Manchester United have been supreme this season, enabling them to hold off the wavering challenges of Manchester City, Chelsea and everyone else. But he also admits that whatever the inconsistency of his club's employment of managers, the cup finals still keep on coming.
Chelsea have reached the Europa League final to follow last season's FA Cup and Champions' League triumphs, a World Club Cup final and semi-finals in this season's two domestic cups. They knocked out United in both the latter competitions, and at Old Trafford today will meet them for a fifth time in seven months, having lost only to an offside goal by Javier Hernandez at Stamford Bridge in October.
That was an important result, allowing United to overtake them at the top of the table the next weekend before staying there for the rest of the campaign. "This is where we count the losses of the season," Cech said. "This is where it cost us the points to challenge the Manchester teams. To win the title you have to be consistent, and [United] have been consistent. You don't win the title just playing nice football.
"There were times this season when Man United didn't have a particularly great game but they knew how to kill the game off and score at the right time. They knew how to defend it, that was the difference. Man City had the same season as us, dropping points at places nobody expected them to."
Chelsea have ended up in a three-way struggle with Arsenal and Tottenham for two Champions' League places, but they have home advantage against Spurs on Wednesday, when the stadium should be rocking as loudly as for the defeat of Basle three days ago. "We know we are capable of playing well and beating anyone, but the frustrating part was that every time we seemed to get back in the title race we dropped points again," Cech said. "The Tottenham game might be the one, because it is head to head. We will see what circumstances we go into that game with. But the team that wins the derby will be in a good position to get the Champions' League spot."
In nine years he has played under as many managers, though not the one who technically signed him: Claudio Ranieri was already a dead man walking in spring 2004 when Rennes reluctantly agreed to let their goalkeeper move on at the end of that season. Jose Mourinho then took over, and on the opening weekend of the following campaign he and Cech enjoyed their first victory and clean sheet against United.
Whether or not, as the crowd sang last Thursday, "Jose's coming home", Cech gives credit to the man currently labouring in Mourinho's shadow. Of Rafa Benitez he said: "We are in the [Europa] final and in a better position than when he took over, which means that some progress has been made. We have got better defensively and we are still scoring goals. It was not an easy job for him, and in difficult circumstances I think he has been doing really well."
And that revolving door strategy? "We keep winning things and changing manager, when some clubs who keep the same manager haven't won anything for a long time. But which way is better is hard to tell." He added with smile: "It would be a relief to have a manager that comes and stays for five years!"
Fergie set to have hip op
Manchester United have confirmed that Sir Alex Ferguson will have a hip operation at the start of August and could miss the start of the new season. Although it is unclear whether a full hip replacement is required, the 71-year-old manager will not go into hospital until after returning from the club's lucrative summer tour to the Far East and Australia, which does not end until 30 July.
The champions play either Manchester City or Wigan in the Community Shield at Wembley on 11 August and the Premier League campaign begins the following weekend. A full hip replacement normally requires a five-day hospital stay then four to six weeks on crutches.
Manchester United v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm