Petr Cech a Chelsea hero turned emblem of new Arsenal tilting London’s balance of Prem power

Ahead of Arsenal's Premier League clash with Chelsea on Sunday, Richard Jolly looks at the impact made by Petr Cech since his move between the two rival clubs.

Arsene Wenger has said Petr Cech should be compared to former Arsenal No 1 David Seaman. John Sibley / Reuters
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Richard Jolly

The greatest goalkeepers have a capacity to confound.

Petr Cech has frustrated more strikers than anyone else in Premier League history while accumulating a record 172 clean sheets in the division. He has stopped shots and played tricks with the mind.

His sponsors sent his new pair of goalkeeping gloves to his old club, Chelsea, this week.

The image of Cech as part of an impenetrable defence, a component in that most intimidating of spines to a side with Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry, was clearly too hard to shake.

For Arsene Wenger, however, memories of an 11-year stay at Stamford Bridge, yielding 15 trophies in 486 games, faded altogether faster.

“I consider him now as a real Arsenal player who looks to me as if he’s been here forever because he has adapted so well and integrated to team spirit,” the Frenchman said this week.

And so a reunion comes with an unusual aspect. Arsenal’s encounters with Chelsea tend to be fractious affairs. Cech may be the man who unites the Emirates Stadium in admiration.

He is a Chelsea hero, the man whose penalty saves won the 2012 Uefa Champions League final. He is an emblem of the new Arsenal, a team trying to cast off past frailties by showing they have the experience, character and pragmatism to win the title.

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He is the goalkeeper Jose Mourinho benched last season, but kept on describing as one of the three best in the world.

Sadly for the veteran, Thibaut Courtois was also among them, in their manager’s estimation.

He is statistically the finest in the top flight this season, with an 81.3 per cent save rate. Those stops have come with an increasing importance.

A 90th-minute save from Joselu preserved a point at Stoke City last week. Recent clean sheets, against Bournemouth and Newcastle United, have owed much to the last line of Arsenal’s defence.

When Cech swapped west London for the north of the capital in the summer, it was to a soundtrack of praise. His former captain Terry said he would be worth “12 to 15 points” a season to Arsenal.

After his dreadful league debut, the 2-0 defeat to West Ham United, Cech’s tally stood on minus three. Now he is very much in credit.

“Of course, he’s comparable with David Seaman,” Wenger said when Cech broke David James’ record for Premier League shutouts. It was high praise but also telling.

Wenger has won the Premier League three times, twice with Seaman as his first-choice goalkeeper and once with Jens Lehmann.

They were experienced figures, goalkeepers with a presence, a reputation and an aura.

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Yet when Lehmann lost his place in 2007, it proved the start of an eight-year interregnum. Arsenal had goalkeeping pretenders, but no real king.

Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski, Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina all had their spells in the side. None was actually awful. None really seemed a title-winning goalkeeper.

Cech has four such medals in his collection and, if the last came as Courtois’ deputy, he could nonetheless become the first player since Eric Cantona to win the Premier League in successive seasons but with different clubs.

To do so, however, he probably has to defeat the club he served with such distinction. Cech’s Arsenal career began with a debut, and a first piece of silverware, against a distinctly undercooked Chelsea team in August’s Community Shield.

Perhaps the most galling setback came on his first return to Stamford Bridge, with September’s defeat disfigured by the behaviour of Diego Costa. Cech conceded twice, while Arsenal had two men sent off.

Chelsea have surrendered their crown but retain the ability to influence who succeeds them as champions.

Unbeaten in eight league games against Arsenal, they have tended to possess a psychological edge in such encounters.

Yet if buying Cech signalled a transfer in the balance of power across the capital, Arsenal must hope an old ally can continue his winning record in these derbies.

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