Priceless Cech the keeper of destiny

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The Independent Online

In their different ways, both exhibited a lift-off that apparently defied logic: one 560 tons of metal; the other 13st 9lb of flesh and blood, and, from the perspective of his adversary Milan Baros, computer-like reflexes.

In their different ways, both exhibited a lift-off that apparently defied logic: one 560 tons of metal; the other 13st 9lb of flesh and blood, and, from the perspective of his adversary Milan Baros, computer-like reflexes.

Earlier in the day, we had marvelled how the Airbus A380, on its inaugural flight, could conceivably defy gravity so gracefully. For an instant at Stamford Bridge, it was as if we were witnessing its goalkeeping equivalent, the 6ft 5in Petr Cech, taking to the air with almost balletic perfection to effect the save which strangled the Czech striker's celebratory cry in his throat.

The metal version, a product of European co-operation, can be yours, or more likely, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's, for £135 million; the other, a Czech product, comes in a little cheaper, at £7m. His actual value is inestimable. As much as this has been a season of consummate fruitfulness for the Stamford Bridge spine of John Terry, Frank Lampard and, it must be stressed, Claude Makelele - a terrier-like ankle-biter of Steven Gerrard and Co after a somewhat hesitant start - Cech's presence was ultimately of paramount importance.

As John Arne Riise, who had himself also been denied by the Chelsea colossus in the goalless Champions' League semi-final first leg, remarked on the save which deflected Baros's glance applied to Gerrard's cross: "How he saved that header from Milan, I just don't know. I was sure it was a goal. He was in the air for 15 minutes before he saved it! Unbelievable."

Liverpool's players were munificent in their regard for Cech, particularly Baros, who has never scored a senior goal against his countryman. Cech protested that his best save had actually been when he had thwarted Cristiano Ronaldo in the last minute of the Carling Cup semi-final at Old Trafford. But no matter. It was a blinder, and - who knows - may be of utmost significance.

History may attest to the fact this was actually an opportunity squandered by the visitors on a night when the hosts appeared jaded and unusually vulnerable, rather than one neglected by Chelsea. As Cech's international compatriot, the midfielder Vladimir Smicer, who emerged as a late substitute, warned: "Chelsea are not disappointed with nil-nil. I can tell you with all my European experience that is not a bad result at home. You score away, and then the home team have to score two goals."

So, in the closest contest we may view all week, on Tuesday night at Anfield, where will your vote go? Who will emerge as the remaining English representatives in Europe? Is the triumphalism we detected among the raucous Anfield advance guard of support as they battered the barrier between them and the media, like tribal drums messaging an impending victory, premature?

As much as the intimidatory confines of Anfield will tend to negate the inequalities between these teams, this rests, in part, on the absence, or not, of certain key performers. Liverpool's Xavier Alonso definitely out, suspended. Chelsea's Damien Duff doubtful. His team-mate Arjen Robben evidently not fully recovered from his wounds.

The outcome is also dependent on self-belief. The boundary dividing the sides would be razor-thin in that respect, but for one crucial factor: Chelsea are blessed with Cech; Liverpool are burdened with Jerzy Dudek.

From their first goalkeeper, the seemingly elephantine but deceptively agile William "Fatty" Foulke, a cult figure from the early years of the last century, through the dependable, long-time servant Peter Bonetti to the exotic Yugoslav of the early Eighties, Petar Borota, a diverse collection of custodians have passed through the Chelsea fold. But none has yielded Chelsea such security as the Czech.

Certainly he is superbly protected, although curiously not so efficiently in European games, where players tend to be of superior quality and build-ups rather more unpredictable, but defensive stability is conditioned by the man at the back. That is why Chelsea may concede at Anfield; Liverpool are liable to do so.

Smicer was asked whether he and Baros score goals against Cech in training for the Czech Republic - because no one else seems to. The midfielder laughed. "Well, we score more than anybody else in our team. But you could see today when Milan went to score with that header just why he is the best in the world." Smicer paused, before adding gravely: "But if you hit the ball well, no one can stop it." As Riise proved early and emphatically in the Carling Cup final.

If they can withstand the intense early probing of the home side on Tuesday, Chelsea should relish the space they are likely to discover. Joe Cole, who at times elected for a surge too far, having initially bemused the Liverpool rearguard in that first game, will welcome a habitat in which he thrives.

More than once, there was a barely discernible shake of the head from his manager, Jose Mourinho, when the young England man was eventually crowded out, but that was about as demonstrative as the Portuguese coach became. It was his rival, Rafael Benitez, who fretted and agonised over the sequence of events.

"This is our time," announces Mourinho portentously, declaring that the title is Chelsea's priority, and implying that Europe would be a nice bonus. Maybe he is playing early mind games as he asserts that the pressure is now all on Liverpool; Mourinho is aware that, for his first season, a League and cup double contribute nicely to his already weighty CV.

Some commentators, who have long contended that Chelsea have "bought" the title - and that history will see them in that light - can hardly contain themselves at the prospect of the Blues being frustrated by, well, they would love to say, impoverished little Liverpool. Except they can't. How much have the Anfield club spent under Gérard Houllier and Benitez? And what were Sir Alex Ferguson and his board about, except "buying" the title, and anything else they could get their hands on, when they invested in Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, and Gabriel Heinze?

If you can buy football success, just why do United desperately need to turn the Millennium Stadium into a salvage yard in three weeks' time as they strive for the FA Cup final victory which will add some lustre to, for them, an otherwise indifferent season?

If the London side reach the Champions' League final, it will be a tribute to Mourinho, who, for all the resources at his deployment, has had to shuffle them significantly, playing a number of his squad out of their preferred positions because of injury.

His fortune is that the spine - Terry, Makelele and Lampard - has largely remained unyielding. Liverpool will have to crack it, and then pass Cech, if they are to progress to the final in Istanbul. That, remains, in both senses, a tall order.

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