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Cech and Courtois - Chelsea's goalkeeping conundrum


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Whilst Chelsea's obvious lack of a consistent goalscorer has been widely touted as their primary concern to address this summer, it is at the opposite end of the pitch where José Mourinho faces the biggest headache.

Rather than being hopelessly short of options in the goalkeeping department, the Special One faces perhaps the cruellest conundrum of the summer as he opts between two of the world's greatest shot-stoppers.

Whilst Petr Cech's magnificent career approaches its twilight, his young Belgian protégé Thibaut Courtois has only just started on the road to international stardom. Despite his tender years, the 21-year-old has already tasted glory with Atletico de Madrid in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, and just last weekend Courtois helped guide his loan side to league success after a 1-1 draw against Barcelona secured the Spanish title. Courtois may even be a European Cup winner next weekend as his side faces cross-city archrivals Real Madrid in Lisbon's showpiece Champions League final...

Despite the divergence in age between Cech and Courtois, the pair share a considerable desire for success. Both born winners, Cech, who tomorrow turns 32, has fourteen major honours to his name in his ten seasons at Stamford Bridge, whilst Courtois has enjoyed a similar trophy return - six major titles in as many seasons for both KRC Genk and Atletico has given the youngster an impressive medal haul and a dream start to his career.

The two are considered to be amongst the world's top ten goalkeepers - perhaps even top five, with, right now, possibly only Manuel Neuer, Salvatore Sirigu and Gianlugi Buffon able to match the pair in terms of ability and consistency - with Cech named the outstanding goalkeeper in the Premier League this season. Courtois, meanwhile, was for the second consecutive year awarded the Zamora Trophy in Spain for having La Liga's lowest games-to-goals-conceded ratio.

Both are outstanding goalkeepers; each, of course, with his own individual strengths and weaknesses. Cech has the priceless commodity of a decade's more experience than the young Belgian, whilst Courtois brings with him the sprightliness and exuberance of youth. As to what to do with the pair is the multi-million-dollar question.

Over the years, Chelsea have been blessed with some magnificent goalkeeping heroes. From Peter Bonetti to more recently Carlo Cudicini, the Blues have never been found wanting for talent between the sticks.

That vast pool of goalkeeping resources has been complimented this season by the addition of Mark Schwarzer, who was more than an able deputy in Cech's absence through injury. Now 41, Schwarzer became comfortably Chelsea's oldest-ever player, but his performances more than belied his relative old age with a string of impressive performances. With Premier League shut-outs against Liverpool and Norwich, Schwarzer became just the third goalkeeper in Premier League history to surpass 150 blanks in the competition (after David James, 170, and Cech, 161).

With Courtois seemingly returning to Stamford Bridge, it seems unlikely that the Australian will be able to add to his respectable tally of eight clean sheets in twelve appearances for the Blues, and he may well move on in search for one final hour in the sun before hanging up his gloves for good. Henrique Hilario, who has been utilised as a scout more than a goalkeeper this term, may also be shipped out.

Premier League regulations dictate that a certain number of homegrown players must make up a substantial part of the Blues' squad next season, meaning that Jamal Blackman may well be promoted to senior squad status. But whilst these outgoings and incomings help deduce who the Blues' third-choice stopper will be next season, Mourinho and Chelsea supporters alike are in no way closer to determining who will wear the number one shirt next season.

That shirt, quite literally, currently belongs to Cech, but with the Czech custodian currently out of action for the best part of three months following surgery on his dislocated shoulder, it is likely that Courtois will be given the nod for any first team pre-season fixtures. Even if Cech makes rapid progress in terms of his recovery, with at best light training likely any time soon, Courtois will undoubtedly hold the edge in terms of physical fitness and match sharpness, especially considering his participation at Belgium's number one at the World Cup.

Petr+Cech+FC+Bayern+Muenchen+v+Chelsea+FAn issue that certainly clouds judgement is that of sentiment. Cech has been at Chelsea for ten years, playing more than 470 times in the process. In January he recorded his 209th clean sheet in an away win at Hull City, which saw him supplant Peter Bonetti's clean sheet record (which now stands at 220), whilst his penalty-saving exploits in Munich will make him forever a part of Chelsea folklore.

But it would appear that Cech is beginning the slow but sure spiral of decline. Despite winning his third Premier League Golden Gloves award for conceding just 24 goals in 34 league games this season, for the first time in his Stamford Bridge career, mistakes by the big Czech have become alarmingly recurrent. Though one can claim that strikes by both Christian Benteke and Sergio Aguero were wondrous in their opportunism and execution, regardless of the technique, goalkeepers should not be beaten at their front post.

There was also a period last season where Cech looked like he could barely make a save, with one worrying period in the midwinter seeing Chelsea ship a concerning number of goals. This was most notable in a defeat at Stoke in early December, where the home side mustered only three shots on target but managed to win the game 3-2. You can identify the 0-0 draw with Norwich as the point where the title was mathematically lost, but in truth it was this period of calamitous defending that ultimately cost the Blues.

Costly mistakes continued with Cech making two terrible errors in a 2-2 home draw with struggling West Bromwich Albion, whilst a total misjudgement at Crystal Palace resulted in a John Terry own goal to consign the Blues to an ignominious defeat.

The Czech did come on strongly after Christmas, recording twelve shut-outs in twenty games, but that commanding, dominant aura he once exuded seems to have all but gone. Once every now and again Cech shows glimpses of his former greatness, and whilst a great shot-stopper he remains, he now seems all but unable to govern his penalty area.

That is not to say Courtois himself is incapable of making mistakes. To the contrary, the young man has had his fair share of howlers this season - not least an embarrassing misjudgement of a looping, deflected cross in a 1-1 away draw at Zenit in the Champions League. The issue is that Cech's errors have been all the more frequent - an alarming statistic considering his former consistency for the Blues.

I am not proposing that Cech has all of a sudden forgotten how to keep goal. Far from it. He remains my favourite-ever Chelsea player, and, in my opinion, one of the world's very best goalkeepers.

The issue with Cech is his inconsistency in comparison to the machine-like orderliness of the calm and collected Courtois, whose coolness and relaxed on-the-field attitude disguises his tender years. Much more like the young man he once was, Cech seems to suffer from regrettable lapses in concentration: something that has severely affected his decision-making. He is no longer as decisive as he once was, and time after time this season he has been caught in goalkeeping No Man's Land.

Cech holds the edge over Courtois in terms of his experience on the big stage, and in terms of his technique. Cech is the archetypal goalkeeper; the sort of shot-stopper you would photograph and interview in a series of textbooks called "How To Be A Goalkeeper". It is because of his picture-perfect technique that he is indeed one of the very best shot-stoppers in world football; perhaps another aspect where he is superior to the young pretender. Cech undoubtedly is the better goalkeeper with the ball at his feet, and his distribution is always measured and accurate - Courtois has yet to acquire such composure.

Similarly, his reflexes seem only to have sharpened with age, and as ever he remains a considerable physical specimen. Courtois, conversely, has a somewhat unorthodox goalkeeping style, but he is no less effective. Though he possesses a leaner, more wiry frame than Cech, Courtois is every bit as strong as the incumbent number one at Stamford Bridge.

Where Courtois has the advantage over Cech is in commanding his box. Unlike the sometimes hesitant Cech, Courtois will attempt to come and claim everything, and whatever he cannot catch he manages to put one of his size eleven fists through and punch clear. Whilst Cech has become the "stay at home" goalkeeper, Courtois is a wrecking ball with a pair of gloves on. Regardless of the danger to himself, he will come and clean out defender and attacker alike to clear the ball.

Some call that brave, others call it reckless. But there is no more encouraging sight for a defender than a dominant goalkeeper, and whilst Cech, with age, retreats more and more into his shell, Courtois' confidence swells with every successful catch and punch. Against the aerial bombardment of the nineteenth-century football of the West Hams and Hulls of this world, Courtois may well be the superior choice.

52cceaf135701baedab36065.jpgIn short, there is incredibly little between either goalkeeper. But that is the point. Cech is one of the world's best goalkeepers - but he is eleven years older than Courtois. With persistent injury troubles, it is difficult to see Cech continuing at the highest level for another decade in the same way that Schwarzer has, for instance. The bottom line is that whilst Cech seems to have already reached his peak and is on a slow, downwards spiral, Courtois will only continue to improve with age and experience.

Courtois could keep goal for Chelsea for the next decade, and, quite possibly, smash every record Cech has ever set. That is the calibre of talent we are discussing, here. Cech, meanwhile, may have another two-three campaigns at the highest level, and in that period he may well be eclipsed by Courtois anyway.

One thing that may scupper Courtois' succession to the coveted number one jersey at Stamford Bridge is any potential deal to bring Atletico striker Diego Costa to Stamford Bridge, with it quite likely that the Spanish champions will demand a fourth loan spell for Courtois. Whatever happens, the Belgian is more than ready to succeed Cech, who, in the face of this freak of a goalkeeping talent, may well have to find a new club of his own if he wishes to retain his status as one of the world's best.

Petr Cech will go down as one of Chelsea's greatest-ever players, of that there is no doubt. He must be treated with dignity, and with respect, but football is a business driven by results and not sentiment. If, as I propose here, installing Courtois as Chelsea's number one is the best move in the long-term for the club, then Cech should either be prepared to move on and look for first team football else (and he would literally walk into most teams with ease), or first focus on returning from injury and then fighting Courtois for the right to represent this great club.

It is a headache shared by many but one solved by José Mourinho, and José Mourinho only. But what the Special One must not allow is for sentiment to cloud his mind. Thibaut Courtois is almost, perhaps already as good as Petr Cech, or any other top-flight goalkeeper in world football at this moment, for that matter. Whether it is Cech or Courtois who is first choice next season, Chelsea's immediate future is in safe hands - but in terms of long-term investment, Courtois is, in truth, the only option.

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