The Champions League Final always seems to bring about some top class goalkeeping. Immediately you think about Jerzy Dudek’s double wonder-save to deny Andrei Shevchenko when Liverpool pulled off the Miracle of Istanbul. In 2008, Edwin van der Sar pulled off some penalty heroics to deny Chelsea and ,the performance he put in for his final game in last year’s decider was arguably better – even it was in a losing cause.
The men between the posts for this year’s final in Munich look on course to be mentioned in the same breath as the very best keepers to have graced the European Cup final. After the troubles he has had in recent seasons, its hard not to have a soft spot Petr Cech and it’s simply a pleasure to watch Manuel Neuer grow into one of the world’s best. How the two perform on the big night is going to have a huge influence on who gets to hold the trophy aloft in the Munich night air.
As a young man you can do things physically that you can’t when you’re older. I think that’s part of the reason Petr Cech has had to rediscover himself. It’s been a process that’s been forced upon him because of his head injury and some other niggling injuries he has had in the last couple of years. After the injury, his form dropped off for a few years to the point where I began to wonder if he could ever get back to his best. It’s taken a while for him to adapt his game. He doesn’t have the out and out shot-stopping ability he once had, but he has learned how to use his experience to greater effect. His positioning is a lot better, his anticipation is good and his decision-making is improved. That’s something you have to do as you get older. With most goalkeepers, that’s a gradual progress that happens over time, but with Cech, it was forced upon him.
This season, it’s noticeable how strong he has been in one on one situations. He’s now more decisive and picking his moment. He doesn’t always have to make the save. Simply putting the striker under pressure sooner can be enough. There were a few examples of this in the two legs against Barcelona, but he’s been doing it throughout the knock-out rounds. Against Napoli he pulled off some saves that kept Chelsea in the tie and against Benfica, his performance made life a lot more straightforward for his team.
The main difference between the two is experience. Manuel Neuer has been around for the last few years, but he’s still the new kid on the block, particularly at this sort of level. He’s rightly been refereed to as one of the best goalkeepers in the game right now. He’s got it all and has experience way beyond what you’d expect for a 26 year old keeper. He’s immensely talented and can do everything. He’s quick, he’s technically very strong, he’s brave, he’s got the physique – he’s really got everything you want in a modern goalkeeper.
With some senior players absent, Chelsea are going to need leaders and big performances. I have no doubts about Cech’s ability to produce both.