Petr Cech begins at the end. The hope is a playing career that has spanned two decades will extend for another fortnight, that Arsenal progress beyond Valencia and, in far-flung Baku, their veteran goalkeeper is granted a fitting finale against the club with whom he won it all. “I don’t know if it is a dream scenario,” he says. “You have your last game, a European final and, if it is against Chelsea, an emotional attachment to the opposition team. It’s probably a bit too much … but if it happens, it happens. It’s the way it is.”
There is work to be done to make that a reality, starting at Mestalla, where Unai Emery’s visitors defend a 3-1 advantage from the first leg, but there would be something splendidly appropriate about Cech bringing down the curtain with a 15th winner’s medal after a collision with Chelsea at the Olympic stadium. After all, he had moved to Arsenal in 2015 intent upon guiding the club to European success, emulating in part what he had achieved over that glittering 11-season stint across the capital. The alternative would be slipping away on the quiet after Sunday’s last league game at Turf Moor. There is no choice to be made between Burnley and Baku.
Regardless of how Thursday plays out, Cech will be recognised as one of the best goalkeepers of the modern era. No one comes close to matching his 202 clean sheets in the Premier League, a tally almost a full season – 33 games – higher than his nearest challenger. The man plucked from Rennes in 2004 managed a staggering 228 shut-outs in 494 games at Chelsea. In his pomp, he felt unbeatable: calm, unflustered, brave and authoritative. He was among a core of senior players alongside John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba who, regardless of the identity of the manager, drove that club to trophies for more than a decade.
At some stage, perhaps in the summer once he has taken a step back from the day-to-day grind, he will reflect on it all. Such is his urgent desire for self-improvement and success with Arsenal, the 36-year-old has not yet allowed himself the time to consider what has been achieved. Remarkably, he has never watched a rerun of his greatest moment: the European Cup final at the Allianz Arena in 2012, when six Bayern Munich players strode up to take a penalty and, on each occasion, the Chelsea goalkeeper dived the right way. The saves from Arjen Robben in extra time, then Ivica Olic and Bastian Schweinsteiger in a shootout, in effect secured the club’s first European Cup.
“I’ve only seen a bit of the shootout once when my son was watching it, and once when we were in a hotel with the team and a Champions League show was on the television … we watched part of it then,” he says. “They showed the last couple of penalties. But I’ve never watched the whole game, and I’ve not watched the 2008 final either.” A reluctance to relive that loss to Manchester United in Moscow is understandable, but Munich represented the pinnacle. “But when people look back too often they lose track of the present. These are moments you watch when you stop.”
During preparations for the 2012 showpiece, Cech and the goalkeeping coach, Christophe Lollichon, had studied a 160-minute DVD detailing every Bayern penalty over the previous five years to spy clues in their habits and routines, from run-ups to rhythm. “Yet it still boils down to a player taking a decision under pressure out on the pitch. Schweinsteiger ran in a completely different way to all the clips I’d watched. But the moment he slowed down he gave me a clue because, usually when he stopped, he shot to his right side. It was at least a little indication.
“We’d watched Manuel Neuer as well and, with left-footed players, he usually dived to his left. Two weeks before the final we’d spoken to Juan Mata about that and, for all that time, he’d practised every day shooting to the other side. And then, in the shootout, he shot to Neuer’s left and he saved it. We said to him: ‘But you knew he would go that way!’ And he just came back with: ‘Do you really think I wanted to shoot there?’ In the heat of the moment, walking from the halfway line, putting the ball on the spot, he’d seen Neuer move a certain way and changed his mind. It’s only the ones who manage to go through this emotional hell who manage to score.”
Cech has shown strength of another kind in England. Retreat, briefly, to 2006 and that dreadful skull fracture sustained in collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt. The injuries he suffered were life-threatening and yet he was back playing again, clad in that now familiar protective skullcap, after three months. “You don’t realise you sense with all the sensations on your skin, on your hair, and I have that area covered now. So I had to learn how to scan more behind me because of the helmet. That was the only change to my game.
“I’d been in a coma for three days and didn’t have any memory of the original incident, and that actually helped. When you are in a car accident and remember it, every time you are in a car and you see something coming then you have that feeling of: ‘What if the car suddenly turns?’ I don’t have that because I don’t remember anything. Diving at somebody’s feet was just something I’d done before and I never worried about doing again.
“Everybody told me not to play again that season. But, once the skull had fused and I’d started training, I felt ready. The only risk was an issue with post-traumatic stress, but I felt happier when I was on the pitch. I had my own issues, but playing actually helped me.”
His time at Chelsea would end in 2015, with Thibaut Courtois established in the first team and the Czech, capped a record 124 times, requesting a move in a meeting at Roman Abramovich’s London residence. “He wasn’t too happy, and didn’t want to see me in that [Arsenal] shirt, but he knew I’d done everything for his club. I expressed the reasons why, and he kind of closed his eyes and said: ‘OK, you can go.’ I was nervous because I didn’t have a plan B.
“The first season I was at Arsenal, we should have won the league but made a few mistakes at the end and Leicester had their fairytale. The one thing that has frustrated me was I came here because Arsenal wanted to go further in the Champions League, and I’ve hardly ever played in it. It’s a fantastic club with great people, all the history and the class, but I came to help them win that European title, and it’s very hard to do if you don’t play. That’s why I hope it happens now because, this season, I play in the Europa League. Maybe the dream I initially went there for can be realised.”
There will be other distractions in the immediate wake of retirement. Cech has a charity record to promote, a collaboration with Roger Taylor of Queen called “That’s Football”, which is released on Thursday to raise funds for the Willow Foundation. The goalkeeper is a keen drummer, regularly appearing with the indie-rock band Eddie Stoilow to showcase his talents. “If the guitarist makes a mistake, nobody notices, but if the drummer does the whole thing falls apart. It’s the same with goalkeeping. If you drop the ball and someone tucks it in, you have no way out.”
He has imparted that advice to his son, Damian, who is registered as a goalkeeper with Chelsea’s Under-10s. At some stage, Cech Sr, too, will be back at Stamford Bridge, whether as a coach or among technical staff. He has completed his Uefa A licence and is “keeping all doors open”. “It’s a very important step, what I do next,” he says. “But first Valencia and, hopefully, then Baku. At some stage all this will sink in. But I want to play another European final before it does.”