In this erratic season of peaks and troughs, there has been much debate over the key points that need addressing by Chelsea once it came to its conclusion. We’ve already seen the appointment of a new manager, next we need to find a solution to the club’s striker problems.
The balance of the team will need to sorted out, in particular how to incorporate Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar into the same side while retaining defensive cohesion. But there is another area which must be dealt with that has dogged the club for several years, but, thankfully seen fortune smile upon them so far. That is the problem of Petr Cech’s understudy.
‘Big Pete’ has been magnificent for Chelsea, and there can be no question of dispensing with him. Although the last couple of seasons have seen him make a few errors, they have been more than compensated for by some match-winning performances, not least his three penalty saves in the Champions League final. Cech is also a senior member of the dressing room and a leader within the squad, and those characteristics are not easily replaced. The problem is when Cech is unavailable for selection, the standard drops alarmingly in the goalkeeping department.
Not since Carlo Cudicini left Stamford Bridge in January 2009 have Chelsea employed two custodians of genuine quality. The Italian’s best days might have been behind him by the time of his departure, but he left a gaping hole in his wake when he moved across London to Tottenham. Ross Turnbull and Hilario have been willing enough when called upon, though neither could realistically claim to be of regular Premier League standard. Each has had their moments in a Chelsea shirt — such as Hilario’s clean sheet against Barcelona in the group stages of the Champions League in 2006 or Turnbull’s League Cup penalty saves against Liverpool and Fulham — but their deficiencies far outweigh those contributions.
On the face of it, it seems incredible that a club with the resources and stature of Chelsea could be so fragile in this area. However, the situation is not merely as simple as going out and buying another world-class goalkeeper or one with real promise and huge ambition. With Cech pre-eminent in his position as Chelsea’s number one, it takes a particular type of person to accept that he will be sitting on the substitutes’ bench for the whole season barring League Cup matches or an injury. As a result, attaining a player of the requisite calibre to step in at a moment’s notice and ably acquit themselves in a game of great magnitude, such as a Champions League semifinal, is not an easy task.
The difficulty of that task was encapsulated perfectly in Chelsea’s failed pursuit of Jack Butland in January. Here was a 20-year-old England squad member plying his trade in the Championship with Birmingham City who turned down the opportunity to sign for the European champions in order to join Stoke City at the end of the season. In the glamour stakes, it appears to be a barmy decision. However, Butland’s reasoning was that he had a far greater chance of featuring for the Potters, especially as the future of incumbent stopper Asmir Begovic is the source of much speculation. And even if Begovic does stay at the Britannia Stadium, Butland has figured the odds of him forcing his way above the Bosnian in Stoke manager Tony Pulis’ thoughts are more in his favour than those of deposing the imperious Cech.
Of course, Chelsea already retain the contract of a top-class young goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois. The young Belgian, 20, has arguably been the best in his position in La Liga over the past two seasons while on loan at Atletico Madrid, the high point being his part in winning the Europa League in 2012. In the process, he has forged a huge reputation. On one level, that bodes extremely well for Chelsea’s future, though in practical terms it presents a rather large headache. Courtois is now far too prominent and well-regarded to be demoted to being a bench-warming number two even at a club of Chelsea’s standing, so now the club have to manage his expectations in line with their own vision as to how long they deem Cech to be their first-choice goalkeeper.
Bearing in mind that Cech is only 30 and with potentially the best part of a decade still in front of him at the top level, Chelsea will have a job on their hands if they are to keep each party happy while also retaining their services. Thankfully, Courtois is an infant in goalkeeping terms and thus should be easier to convince, in theory. He will spend the 2013/2014 season at Atletico for his 3rd successive year at the club.The ideal scenario would be for Chelsea to produce a home-grown alternative who is capable of filling the breach. But while Jamal Blackman has talent, he is far from ready for an extended run with the seniors. The Blues have to invest in a getting a goalkeeper who is happy to play second fiddle while also being capable. A failure to do so could serve to undermine any other significant process they make in the transfer market.
You can have the most skillful outfield players in the world, but if behind them is an inexperienced, error-strewn keeper clearly out of their depth, then any good work can unravel in an instant. For four years, Chelsea have buried their heads in the sand over this problem and have been lucky. Now they must stop spinning the roulette wheel, or fate will decree that on the day after the summer transfer window closes, Cech will be stuck with a season-ending injury and the Blues will be left careening down the proverbial creek without the ability to steer.
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