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.

Premier League and La Liga GKs dominate latest Goalkeeper World Rankings

Guillermo Ochoa

It may have been a relatively barren summer with little by way of regular football fare, but it’s back and it’s been no sleepy start the season. It’s especially the case when it comes to the goalkeepers with a multitude of storylines to witness unfolding with fascination.

David De Gea dominated much of the goalkeeping related headlines for July and August. First there was the anticipation if seeing him line out for Manchester United in their pre-season programme. Then came the excitement of seeing him try the role in something more akin to the heat of battle with the Community Shield and the first league games as United the bid for league number 20. Sadly, it hasn’t been the start De Gea dreamed of, but although his fee comes with the expectation of near perfection, his age means a certain amount of slip-ups are to be expected. The frequency and nature of the mistakes have been surprising, but it’s too early to push the panic button. The media have once again displayed their remarkable ignorance of the goalkeeping position by essentially writing him off as a Fergie flop with immediate effect, but a less sensationalist analysis is required to thoroughly diagnose why the young Spaniard looks so far removed from the dominant nigh-on wall who impressed so for Atletico and the underage Spanish sides in recent seasons. It’s speculation on my part, but I believe his errors stem from over-thinking as a result of the realisation of the pressure at United. Having watched him closely for the guts of 2 years, I’m utterly convinced he has the ability to be a huge success at Old Trafford and he will overcome his difficulties in time. That said, at the moment his status in the Top 10 is under threat and his progress will be one of the more interesting subplots to the season.

A goalkeeper more than capable of speaking about putting short-term disappointment behind him is Shay Given and the early stages of Aston Villa career suggest his sustained period of inactivity at Manchester City hasn’t blunted his ability. Even throughout his spell of bench-warming, he was highly regarded by me and although being continually overlooked by Roberto Mancini meant he had to be eased out of the rankings, I have little difficulty in reinstating him into the Top 10. It’s a little harsh on Steve Mandanda who has really come along at Marseille, but in short – do I think Given has proven himself to be a better goalkeeper than the Frenchman? Personally I think he’s better than players higher up on the list, but time will tell if he can recapture the startling consistency that has made him one of Europe’s top goalkeepers for much of the last decade and return to his lofty position of the past.

At the top of the rankings, what we’ve seen from Iker Casillas suggests he will continue performing to the high standards now almost taken for granted. Two Super Copa games and 5 goals conceded isn’t the most compelling of stats to back up that claim, but his performances in keeping brilliant Barcelona at bay was far better than the scoreline suggested. Serie A hasn’t yet resumed so we haven’t seen Gigi Buffon, but will surely remain one of the world’s finest keepers. Petr Cech only managed one game before suffering an injury likely to keep him out for a month. That game wasn’t his most convincing and due to Pepe Reina’s good start to the season for Liverpool, the Premier League pair swap places. Hugo Lloris has been playing well for Lyon, but Manuel Neuer’s career at Bayern Munich hasn’t got off to the perfect start, either on or off the pitch. We’re more concerned about what happens on the pitch and for those reasons, he takes a slight dip in the rankings.

The most impressive performance from a goalkeeper this month came from a goalkeeper yet to break into the top 10. Guillermo Ochoa has long since been spoken about as the hottest goalkeeping property outside of Europe, so it was a surprise to many when he signed for newly promoted Corsican outfit, Ajaccio in Ligue 1. He has since explained that the move is in part to rehabilitate his reputation after allegations of doping and also as a stepping stone to one of Europe’s bigger name clubs. He may not stay with the islanders for long, but while he’s there the locals will be treated to some show. Already he has put in a couple of performances of remarkable agility and athleticism. He doesn’t yet break into the Top 10 on account if the fact I haven’t seen enough of him to be sure of his consistency, but more of the same and he’ll be there and most likely in a lofty position. He’ll have to make do with Goalkeeper of the Month honours for August.

Also in good form and narrowly missing out is Wojciech Szczesny. Arsenal have had a troubled start to the season, but one major ray of sunshine has been the form of the young Pole. Over the summer, Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to make a move for a high-profile keeper was questioned, but it was always apparent that Szczesny would be his first choice and he looks to have repaid that faith by developing significantly during the close season. Confidence has never been an issue for the youngster, but his performances so far indicate he now is a more assured performer. The stunning penalty save from Antonio Di Natale in Arsenal’s Champions League was the cherry on top of the cake, but more impressive is the overall improvement in his game.

Another goalkeeper bubbling outside the Top 10 are Fernando Muslera who was simply brilliant at the Copa America. He’s another supremely talented goalkeeper who is yet to convince me of his consistency despite obvious ability. For a long time I had him pegged as something of a calamity keeper, but I’m more than willing to admit that may be an inaccurate reflection. I will follow his progress at Galatasaray keenly. Samir Handanovic of Udinese also impressed immensely in the Champions League tie with Arsenal and after getting a lot of good reports about him last season, he’ll be one to watch when the Serie A season finally gets underway.

Current (Former)
1. (1) Iker Casillas (Real Madrid and Spain)
2. (2) Gigi Buffon (Juventus and Italy)
3. (4) Pepe Reina (Liverpool and Spain)
4. (3) Petr Cech (Chelsea and Czech Rep.)
5. (5) Victor Valdes (Barcelona and Spain)
6. (6) Hugo Lloris (Lyon and France)
7. (9) Joe Hart (Man City and England)
8. (8) Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich and Germany)
9. (7) David de Gea (Manchester United)
10. (=) Shay Given (Aston Villa and Ireland)

The Manchester United Goalkeeper Hunt Continues

Paper talk over the last couple of days have attempted to shed more light on who’s likely to replace Edwin van der Sar at Old Trafford, but if anything, it’s only highlighted how messy the picture has become. Here’s the latest attempt to cut through the double-talk and go through Sir Alex Ferguson’s likely wishlist.

Pepe Reina
1. Pepe Reina
As unthinkable as it might be to Liverpool fans, Reina joining their most despised of rivals isn’t as far-fetched as some may think. The Spaniard’s fiercely competitive nature is evident on the pitch and he wants to win trophies. Fernando Torres’ conclusion that aspirations of silverware were best served by moving elsewhere will have got Reina thinking about something similar. A move back to Spain has been spoken about, but only to Atletico Madrid where his father played for much of the 70s, even reaching a European Cup final. His contemporaries at Barcelona and Real Madrid would seem to have those plum goalkeeping berths locked down and the move to the Mattress Makers is more likely to happen towards the end of his career.

Not for the first time in his life, Liverpool’s recent upturn in form won’t be to the satisfaction of Sir Alex, but on this occasion it has nothing to do with rivaling the Red Devils for silverware or honours. The Anfield club are about as far away from a title challenge as at any point during Fergie’s reign at Old Trafford, but their resurgence under Kenny Dalglish may convince Reina to hang tight for at least another season. Ferguson and his goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele are said to be big fans of Reina, but with improved form and the promise of further investment over the summer, extending his stay on Merseyside could be worth the risk. Time would appear to be on his side. He’ll only turn 29 towards the start of next season and such is the peak physical condition that Reina keeps himself in, it’d wouldn’t be a surprise to be talking about him in 2020. Reina has the option of having his cake and eating it by giving Liverpool another chance to return to the top of the English game. If it doesn’t work out and Man Utd are still the dominant force in the Premier League in a couple of years, he could move then and still enjoy an extended stay at Old Trafford.

David de Gea
2. David de Gea
With the Reina option looking less and less likely with each improvement King Kenny gets from his team, Man Utd have been exploring the possibly of raiding the next generation of Spanish custodian. David de Gea is at the forefront of the generation after reportedly impressing Steele on several scouting missions in the recent past. Purely of terms of talent, de Gea has exactly what it takes to succeed in the Premier League right now and with the potential for further improvement he could excel for Man Utd. At the age of 20, he’s a hugely exciting prospect, but his youth is something of a double-edged sword for Man Utd.

On one hand, snapping up a player barely out of his teens who has a proven track record of success has the potential – if the best of the dream-like best scenario’s comes to pass – of sorting out the Man Utd goalkeeping position for a decade and possibly more. On the other, de Gea is reported to have misgivings about moving abroad quite so young. De Gea seems to be a young man of uncommon maturity and attitude, but the option of staying with Atletico to develop further prior to a big move is said to be tempting him into staying put for the next couple of years.

One concern may centre around the step up in expectations. In terms of media attention and pressure, his time at Atletico Madrid will have given de Gea at least an idea of what he will go through in the spotlight of Old Trafford, but the expectations at each club are vastly different. With the team in front of him regularly misfiring, on the occasions when de Gea has made mistakes, the consequences haven’t been too grave. That won’t be the case at Man Utd where – regardless of the opposition or the competition – he’ll play two high pressure games a week with virtually zero margin for error. With silverware expected, allowing the goal that turns three points into just one and could in turn prove costly at the end of the season will not be tolerated and de Gea has to decide if he’s ready for that level of scrutiny at this early stage of his career.

Manuel Neuer
3. Manuel Neuer
Neuer would be a great option for Man Utd, but he has made noises about preferring to stay in Germany and wanting to win a Bundesliga title. The interest from Bayern Munich would give him an option to complete both of these stated goals.

There had been hope that Thomas Kraft would be the long-term solution to Bayern’s goalkeeping issues, but for all his potential, he may not be the immediate remedy that the Bavarian club require. Attention has been turned back to Neuer and for good reason. He has always been highly rated, but over the last season and a half, the Schalke keeper has come along in leaps and bounds. Mistakes have been less and less common and his has become a more commanding presence around the penalty area. He is strikingly similar to the great Peter Schmeichel in terms of style and pure effectiveness and the experience he has amassed in six years of first team football make him vastly more tried and tested than the typical 25 year old. He has the talent to make a big impression at Old Trafford, but the signs are he’s staying put in the Bundesliga for the time-being. With age on his side, a move may again be discussed in the future, but for the moment – barring a change of heart or bags of money – it’s looking unlikely.

Maarten Stekelenburg
4. Maarten Stekelenburg
In the midst of all the speculation, Stekelenburg has remained a constant in the background. Rumours have trickled through consistently and the lack of agitation for a move and comment from Stekelenburg hints at a man confident in the knowledge a deal has been struck and where he’ll be playing his football next season. The Dutch connection makes the narrative of this particular option all the more appealing, but rest assured it has little influence on how Ferguson and Steele are assessing their options – Stekelenburg is being considered simply because he’s good enough to be considered and similarities with the departing Van der Sar are purely coincidental.

Technically good and physically robust, the current first choice for the Oranje would be well suited to the challenges of the Premier League and he comes across as the type of level-headed personality who will take the move to Old Trafford in his stride.

Gianluigi Buffon
5. Gianluigi Buffon
I’d be stunned if Buffon turns up at Old Trafford next season, mainly because it’s his agent who has been doing most of the talking about a possible move to England and purely on a personal basis, moving to the Premier League wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Having spent his entire career in Serie A, moving to England would require uprooting a young family to a completely new culture for a few years. Otherwise he could try the commute, but that’s only likely to meet with disapproval from Sir Alex and eventual homesickness. It would appear that Buffon’s agent has looked at the only two major European clubs in need of a top quality goalkeeper in an attempt to frighten Juventus into offering him a much improved contract. My guess would be Buffon will get his contract, stay in Turin for the next couple of years before moving to one of the Gulf states for one last lucrative pay-day.

The financial situation at Juve is often cited as a reason why Buffon’s departure is a possibility, but how much is a 33 year old – admittedly top class – increasingly injury-prone goalkeeper likely to fetch in a depressed transfer market? Whatever figure you arrive it, it’s unlikely to be enough to chase the financial gloom away. The benefits of hanging on to Buffon almost certainly outweigh the benefits of selling him on. Possibly adding fuel to the rumour is a fractious relationship with head coach, Luigi Del Neri. After recovering from the injury sustained at the World Cup, Buffon declared himself fit and ready to return for Juventus. Rather than immediately reinstate Italy’s number 1, Del Neri kept faith with Marco Storari for an extended period of time and that didn’t go down well with Buffon. As he was one of Del Neri’s first signings when taking charge last summer, there may have been an element of politics involved in the manager’s decision to stick with Storari, but whatever the reason, it’s judgment like that which makes it likely Buffon will be at Juventus next season whilst Del Neri will not.

The ‘all things considered’ most likely options list
1. Stekelenburg
2. De Gea
3. Reina
4. Neuer
5. Buffon

England’s Goalkeeping Crisis

Ben Foster

International friendlies are football’s version of elections. There’s a bit of a fuss, they get a lot of attention, but regardless of the outcome, no-one’s happy and very little seems to have changed. Win a friendly and it’s nice, but largely insignificant. Losing isn’t good, but it’s easy to turn a blind eye and concentrate on future competitive matches. More resounding victories or defeats may be harder to ignore, but ultimately it’s the qualifying campaigns for the various international tournaments that are the yardstick for progress.

So despite that inauspicious summary, England’s performance against France is a major cause for concern. With suspiciously timed vague injuries again ruling out many starters and several newcomers in the team, taking the easy option and writing it off is understandable, but a lack of quality in depth was apparent across the team. And a lack of quality in shallow according to some.

The goalkeeping division is a major concern. Ben Foster isn’t yet an international standard goalkeeper. He got beaten at his near post for the first goal and his handling looked untrustworthy a couple of time. He’s young and may yet develop, but for the moment, relying on him isn’t ideal. True enough, England may not have to be should Joe Hart maintain his form and fitness over the long term, but it’s clear England’s well of goalkeepers is remarkably dry. When Hart pulled out through injury, things got so bad that Fabio Capello had to draft in Scott Loach who the day before had been playing for the England U21 side in Germany. We’ve got nothing against Loach, but it illustrates the lack of options available to the Italian.

Elsewhere, other countries don’t have such difficulties. Spain’s goalkeeping ranks are the envy of the world, whilst elsewhere Germany, Italy and France seem to have numerous possibilities should they be denied their first choice. So why the lack of options? Well, in a rare burst of hard-work, we’ve had a look at the respective top flights of Europe’s top 5 leagues to look at the breakdown of goalkeepers eligible for that country’s national team versus those who aren’t – i.e. foreign goalkeepers. It doesn’t look good.

We’ve gone with the squad data available on UEFA.com. Flawed it may be, but at least it’s flawed for everyone. And when it comes to tricky questions regarding nationality or dual nationality, we’re side-stepping any possible controversy by going with what UEFA say. Blame them, it’s their fault.

England's Goalkeeping Crisis

It shows there are a shockingly low number of opportunities being given to English goalkeepers in the Premier League. There’s a huge over reliance on foreign talent. Although the fact that the stats mean relatively locals such as the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish are included as foreigner, it still paints a grim picture and suggests in the interests of the national side, Premier League sides should be producing far more indigenous talent. Admittedly, just because they’re in the squad doesn’t mean they’re close to first team football, but the fact they’ll be exposed to top class goalkeepers and coaching talent on a daily basis should stand to them and improve them over the course of a career.

Have a look at the more detailed version of the data here, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

There needs to a serious sea-change in England or else they’ll get a serious kick in the ballots over the next few years.

Hitz And Miss

Rene Adler

Here’s a House of Howlers from the Bundesliga. Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen played out an entertaining 2-3 goalfest over the weekend, but neither Marwin Hitz or German international and Premier League target, Rene Adler came out of it with much credit.

Adler over-excitedly sliced his attempted clearance to set up the first goal and had no chance of keeping Diego at bay later as the move was finished off. He then watched the ball roll under his nose and across the 6 yard box as Steve McLaren’s Wolfsburg went 2-0 up. He collapsed rather than commanded his area, handing Grafite a finish simpler than the offspring of blood relations.

At the other end, Swiss youngster Hitz fared no better. His David James impression was spot on for the first goal, but that will be of little consolation to his manager. Ironically, the best bit of glovework on the day came from Makoto Hasebe as his intervention handed Bayer a straightforward penalty. It’s hard to criticise a keeper for not saving a spot-kick, but after guessing right, Hitz should have done better to save the strike that was at a nice height and about as accurate as a Naomi Campbell statement to a war crimes tribunal. A poor afternoon of net-minding was complete as hesitancy from Hitz allowed Leverkusen to score a late winner. This is probably the harshest of the bunch, but he looked very leaden-footed as he came out to block the attempt.

If you’re a fan of good goalkeeping then don’t watch, but if you like a laugh, here’s the evidence.