KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Will he or won’t he? Petr Cech will feature in the last game of his career, one way or another, when Arsenal face his old club Chelsea in the Europa League Final in Baku.
But whether he starts on the pitch or the substitutes’ bench has yet to be decided by manager Unai Emery.
The 37-year-old Czech has featured in 10 of the Gunners’ Europa League games this season as Emery kept him match-fit. But the manager has to decide between the emotional opportunity or the realistic choice of keeping faith with Bernd Leno who is the ‘usual’ first choice.
An extra complication in the equation is the expectation that Cech, following his imminent retirement, will be appointed by Chelsea as sporting director. Not surprisingly, neither club nor Cech himself have commented on the possibility.
Cech, after Arsenal’s semi-final victory over Valencia, described a final against Chelsea, with whom he won 14 major trophies between 2004 and 2015, as the “perfect end” to his playing career. That victory extended his career by a further three weeks beyond the end of the Premier League season.
Every time Cech played in the Europa League he was aware that it could have been his last appearance after a 22-year career.
He said: “Every single round when I went out to play I thought that this could be the last game. I will go to the final with exactly the same mentality as in all my career: You have to be brave, keep calm and focus on playing your best game.”
Cech began his senior career back home with Chmel Blsany and Sparta Prague where he set a Czech league record of remaining unbeaten in 903 minutes. That earned a €5.5m move to Rennes in France and, two years later, a further €10m transfer to the ‘new’ Chelsea being put together by Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho.
In 11 years at Stamford Bridge Cech made 494 senior appearances in winning four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, one Europa League and one Champions League against Bayern in Munich. He also holds the club all-time record for 228 clean sheets. He added a further FA Cup win to his record with Arsenal after leaving Chelsea in 2015.
However, Cech is no longer the player he once was. He is liable to occasional mistakes and is not a sweeper-keeper comfortable with the ball at his feet.
Former Ireland forward Tony Cascarino, writing in The Times, has said that selecting Cech would be “a sackable offence.”
Cascarino wrote: “He is now a far inferior player to No1 goalkeeper Leno. I’d almost go so far as saying that if a manager picks a second-choice goalkeeper in a game of such magnitude then it is a sackable offence.
“The club signed Leno because Cech was on the wane and it will be ridiculous if he starts the biggest game of their season. There is so much on the line: a major trophy and the glory that brings to the club and its fans, Champions League qualification, the money you get from reaching that competition.
“Winning will have a huge impact on the calibre of new signings Arsenal will be able to attract in the transfer window. You simply cannot justify picking Cech with so much at stake.”