Cech’s resurgence is crucial as Chelsea take on Bayern

Petr Cech and Manuel Neuer

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.

Everton v Liverpool – Howard or Reina?

One on One

It’s often referred to as the ‘Friendly Derby’ but we’ve seen the physios called into action too often and red cards flashed with a frequency that suggest civility is at a minimum. In some – generally Blue – quarters it’s painted as a meeting of Merseyside’s ‘haves and the have nots’. There’s no doubt that the balance sheets of both clubs are in vastly different states of health, but at least in the goalkeeping ranks they can both consider themselves to relatively well off.

Tim Howard has the physical attributes of an excellent goalkeeper. The speed of his reflexes have to be considered amongst the fastest in the Premier League. The sheer number of amazing point-blank saves he has managed down through the years is down to more than luck and optimistically sticking out a limb. His agility is also supreme and he’s capable of pulling off some amazing saves. The fact that he has reestablished himself as one of the Premier League’s most consistent performers after being unceremoniously dumped out of Old Trafford shows a commendable attitude and determination. He has started the season extremely well and with Everton likely to be involved in a multitude of tight contests, he will be as important as ever to David Moyes.

The one area of his game that I think limited his progress and probably ultimately cost him his Old Trafford career was his concentration. Everyone is allowed make a mistake, but there is the lingering suspicion is they happen a little too often. In recent seasons haven’t exactly been prolific on the goalscoring front and as such his errors probably cost his team more points than they would elsewhere. When the mistakes do happen, they generally manifest themselves as handling errors. I don’t think his handling is necessarily weak, but when Howard’s mind does start to wander, he’s prone to fumbling a shot or spilling a straightforward cross. Still though, having him is a huge positive for the Toffees and being an ever-present for each of Everton’s last three Premier League seasons is a sign of how highly he’s rated.

Pepe Reina is one of the best goalkeepers in not only the league, but the world. I’ve written about his combination of agility, bravery, command and distribution countless times in the past. He is simply one of the best. Sadly for Kenny Dalglish and Reds fans, unless Liverpool start contending for major honours, he may be tempted by the sirens trying to lure him away from Anfield.

Pepe makes mistakes. Sometimes shocking mistakes. What’s remarkable about him is his ability to put them behind him instantaneously and continue to operate at a high level. For all his brilliance, he hasn’t been at his best in recent weeks. The defence in front of him has creaked and done him little favours. It’s at times like this I sometimes feel Reina tries too hard to compensate for the short-comings of his team-mates. Given his notoriously competitive nature, he seems to think he is the starting point for improvement and he strains every fibre of his body to generate the turnaround. I think a lot of the time, his errors stem from almost trying too hard to influence the game and his aggressive style of play leads to blips in his concentration. You’d still have him in your team every single time however and his form will be crucial in deciding how close Liverpool get to a return to the promised land of Champions League football.

It’s Reina over Howard for me, but it’s not by much, especially if the American continues his recent form.

Van der Sar Holds The Key To Man Utd Victory

One v One – Edwin Van Der Sar v Victor Valdes
Van der Sar v Valdes

Champions League Final. Barcelona. A goalkeeping legend’s last game for the club.
There’s a delightful deja vu about the European Cup decider that will at the very least, give Manchester United fans memories of that night in the Camp Nou twelve years ago. For those who like to link coincidences with fate, the stars may appear to be aligning in favour of the Red Devils, but in truth the result of the game will be decided on 7,000 odd square metres of grass rather than the vast expense of space.

If ever there was an opportunity to go out on an incredible high, Edwin van der Sar has it. Less than a week after collecting the latest Premier League winner’s medal of an astonishingly fruitful Indian Summer to his career, the Dutchman could also be bowing out as a European champion. Whilst we need to be cautious about getting swept up in the fairytale, van der Sar is one of United’s key players – arguably the key – in their attempts to win a fourth European Cup. Hyperbolic as it may seem, he’s coming up against one of the best teams to have played the game and almost certainly he’ll need to produce one of the best performances of his fantastic career if United are to achieve victory.

If there is one area where United are significantly stronger than Barcelona, its in goals. All season long, Alex Ferguson must have watched and cursed the Dutchman’s retirement under his breath. His composure and ability to do the simple things right were a huge part of why Fergie finally achieved his aim of knocking Liverpool of their perch. With his defence not always covering themselves in glory, it was often left to van der Sar to cover for the weaknesses with a well-judged intervention or a commanding claim of a high ball. And then there were the more eye-catching moments such as full stretch saves and breath-taking reflexes. van der Sar has reached his forties, but on current form there’s another half a decade of top level football there if he wants it. It’s hard to estimate just how quickly the body of an elite athlete will deteriorate when age does catch up with a player, but based on his performances, injury-record and appetite for the game, 5 more years may only be an exaggeration of only the very slightest variety. He remains one of the best in the world and the importance of his contributions are only highlighted when looking at the player he’ll indirectly be opposing at Wembley.

At times Victor Valdes gets criticised for the ‘sin’ of apparently not having much to do. The way Barcelona take a near monopoly on the ball and rarely seem to be doing anything other than create whirlwinds of wonderful attacking play seems to have given rise to the view that Valdes isn’t especially good and Pepe Guardiola could essentially name a scarecrow in goals with little adverse effect. There is some truth in the under-employment notion. I look back and my notes and very often there’s a white space beside his name due to the absence of any significant work for him to do. That doesn’t make him useless however. Valdes is a good keeper and as little as he may have to do in the numerous romps that Barca seem to manage, he has a set of skills suited to the demands of the role. He’s generally a brave, very athletic and commanding goalkeeper who is quick to close down opponents, but his greatest talent may well be his ability to concentrate – not only in terms of making saves, but in the more general sense of watching how play develops and always being alert to the needs of his defence – whether its to make a stunning save or being available to take a backpass.

That said, Valdes clearly has the capacity to make a mistake. At the Emirates, a poor piece of positioning allowed Robin van Persie to hammer in a goal that ultimately didn’t cost Barcelona, but made it a more uncomfortable passage. Equally, in the second leg, I recall Barcelona utterly dominated the second half, but Nicklas Bendtner was presented with a glorious chance to send Arsenal through. In the end, it was a poor touch that snuffed out the move, but Valdes – in conjunction with Mascherano – made life as difficult as possible for the Dane. A slight daydream or moment of hesitation from Valdes could have given Bendtner the space he required to finish and knock the Catalans out of the tournament.

Looking back at the 2009 final, the early stages of Valdes’ performance highlight the need for composure and an ability to do the basics right when it matters. In the first seven seconds, Valdes gives United a throw-in in an advanced position courtesy of a misplaced pass and about a minute later, the English side have worked themselves into a promising free-kick position. Cristiano Ronaldo hit it relatively well, but in reality it was a shot straight at Valdes which he couldn’t gather and somehow United failed to score. To be fair to Valdes it did bounce before in front of him and take one of the more erratic trajectories Ronaldo managed to achieved with his woefully over-rated free kick taking, but goalkeepers wanting to be considered amongst the elite in their profession need to deal with them in the overwhelming majority of cases. Games, ties and Champions League runs turn on such moments and had United snapped up the gift they were presented with, the pattern – and quite possibly the result – of the game could easily have been different. At the other end van Der Sar did everything that was asked at him and his stops not only prevented it from being a cakewalk for Barca, but gave United a punchers chance of taking the game.

I also wonder if his defence fully trust Valdes. I’ve seen him get involved in mix-ups with his defenders who at times seem anxious not to have to resort to him (case and point would be this goal against Levante from a couple of weeks ago – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xe2-ACui1hk). The frequency of misunderstandings may have a lot to do with the difficulty in communicating in the atmosphere of the colossal Camp Nou, but it seems to be an issue. Maybe it’s trust, more likely it’s just a breakdown in communication – either way, they afford too much of it in the Champions League final.

It’s a true goalkeeping great versus a good goalkeeper. Where van der Sar is strong, Valdes sometimes struggles. Barcelona may well have the talent to render the discrepancy null and void, but the stage might be set for van der Sar to make it count.

The Carling Cup Final From A GK Point Of View

Szczesny & Foster
One v One – Szczesny v Foster
Wojciech Szczesny must feel like he has the world at his feet. A week and a half after resisting wave after wave of Barcelona attack to put his team in a great position to advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, he will line out at Wembley with a chance of claiming the first bit of silverware in a senior Arsenal career that is precisely 15 games old. The young Pole has risen rapidly to the top of the Gunners’ goalkeeping pecking order, but such have been the maturity and confidence of his performances, he doesn’t strike you as a man struggling to keep his head above water. His all round game is strong – his agility good, his hands reliable and he’s quick to spot danger. He’s not yet perfect however. His distribution needs work and if I’m being picky, some mouthy comments on Twitter and vocal incidents on the pitch hint at a temperament that’s someway short of ice cool. The arrival of Jens Lehmann as a short-term addition to the Arsenal coaching staff isn’t likely to smooth out this aspect of his game, but goalkeeping coach, Gerry Peyton would be well advised to work on keeping his attitude in check.

When Szczesny looks down the pitch on in the Carling Cup final – aside from the likelihood of seeing Lee Bowyer maim someone – he’ll see a cautionary tale. The very use of that phrase has connotations with tragedy and despair, which is not the case, but at the age of 27, Ben Foster’s career hasn’t yet continued on the stellar trajectory the early hype suggested it might. In the lifespan of a goalkeeper, he’s young enough to change that, but the development needs to come soon. It’s difficult to criticise Foster for the hype generated by his rise. Whilst an agent may have used it as leverage in various transfer and contract negotiations, he wasn’t taking full-page ads in newspapers telling the world how amazing he thinks he is.

Being English and an employee of Manchester United is enough to get the hype machine whirring busily. At a young age, when there’s not a whole lot of first team experience to go on, it can create an ’emperors new clothes’ effect where the obvious shortcomings are overlooked simply because of (a) the overwhelming desire for a good English goalkeeper and (b) a club like Manchester United have seen enough talent to deem him worth recruiting. Foster had a couple of good seasons with Watford, but playing in a side in which survival was the objective, he was always likely to be given more leeway than at a club were two high pressure games a week are the norm and winning is taken as a right. At Manchester United, where every match is essentially huge and any dropped points are a reason for full-scale post-mortem, the stakes are much higher and the tolerance for errors much lower. Following some good early promise, too much was expected of him too young and he was immediately onto a hiding to nothing where disappointment was almost guaranteed.

He’s still a very, very good goalkeeper, but as yet, he hasn’t done enough to be considered one of the very best in England. Let alone Europe or the world. He lacks the explosive spring and agility of genuinely top class keepers and his hands let him down a little too often. His reactions are very good and often are enough to compensate for suspect technique. This isn’t about bashing Foster. It’s about warning about the pressures facing a young goalkeeper and how difficult it can be to meet the expectation heaped on you based on a handful of games. Other people were writing cheques he couldn’t cash and he is now – rather harshly and through little fault of his own – finds himself in the category of the under-fulfilled potential. It’s very much the ‘build ’em up to knock ’em’ down philosophy so prevalent in certain quarters of the media.

Szczensy is flavour of the month at the moment, but the race is long and things don’t always go to plan. The fulsome praise he’s now receiving could easily turn to stinging criticism. How he handles it will be a key factor in determining the success of his career.

Cech v Reina could decide Chelsea v Liverpool

Cech & Reina

There’s only one story that will be talked about when Liverpool travel to Chelsea on Sunday. Whoever has been brought in to replace the Keys/Gray axis of inanity will tell us every little detail about Fernando Torres. And in case that’s not enough, the accompanying slow motion montages sound-tracked by something ominous sounding from the Beethoven back-catalogue will remind you of the drama associated with the treachery/logical move[delete as appropriate to your point of view]. Just how Torres uses his ‘inside knowledge’ to exploit his former employers is the main attraction. If that ‘inside information’ amounts to Liverpool not having a great defence, then we’re all privy to it.

But there is another match up of more interest. Granted it’s a clash that barring a 22 man brawl or run upfield for a last minute corner, will have the belligerents about 90 yards apart throughout for much of the match. The battle between Petr Cech and Pepe Reina is crucial to the result of this match. It’s two of the world’s best goalkeepers going head to head and without jumping to conclusions about a result, they’ll be kept busy. For the goalkeeping enthusiast, it’s a mouth-watering prospect.

Petr Cech has been reborn this season – a born again custodian. He is arguably playing the best football of his life. There’s a confidence and assertiveness to his game that had regularly been marked absent for the last few years. When you’ve got the technical ability and natural talent of Cech, it’s still possible to preform to a high level without the spirit, but with it he is truly exceptional. Chelsea’s slump may tarnish his reputation to the casual observer, but scratch the surface and he has been superb throughout and without his excellent form, the slump may have started a lot sooner than it did and the Blues would have secured the title of crisis club long before Liverpool took an iron grip on it. His shot-stopping has always been excellent, but this season his confidence under the high ball has returned. He has been nothing short of brilliant.

Cech’s story this season is strangely similar to that of Pepe Reina. The form of the outfield players in front of him hasn’t done much for the aesthetics of his statistics, but beyond the numbers he has been playing very well and made some crucial saves that have directly impacted the points haul of his team. In wins against Bolton, Fulham and even the seemingly facile 3-0 win away to Wolves, the Spaniard came up with crucial saves to smooth the path to all three points for Liverpool. It’s these small margins that make all the difference and by ensuring his team claimed all three points rather than settling for one or possibly none, he has ensured the team are watching the relegation battle from a relatively comfortable distance rather than being at the centre of it. ‘He’s not playing as well as he can’ is one point often mentioned when I start singing his praises. I completely agree. He’s not, but such is his talent that even operating at 85 or 90% of his actual ability he is still one of the world’s best. This season has seen him make some mistakes, but overall his impact on the team is a huge positive for the Reds.

Torres may be the one grabbing the headlines, but the performance of the two goalkeepers will have a big barring on the how the story unfolds.