Does anyone else find it crazy that it's been four years since Petr Cech was nearly killed by Stephen C. Hunt's flying knee? It seems like just yesterday that we got to see Cech's hair during matches rather than the protective skullcap he has to wear as a result of that challenge. That game also marked the debut appearance of John Terry is our goalkeeper, a situation only slightly less traumatic than nearly having our goalkeeper die. Poor Carlo Cudicini must have felt well and truly upstaged in the middle of all that. Substituted in, gets knocked out, nobody cares.
I bring the unpleasant events of October 14th, 2006 up only because it seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Chelsea's spell as the top defensive team in the Premier League. Cech would return from his injury later that season, and played remarkably well, but he never seemed to have quite the same commanding presence in the box, despite clearly possessing all the skills that made him arguably the best goalie in the world for a time. Four years ago, goalkeeping was a major strength for the club. Now, things are more complicated.
Let me preface this by saying that I don't think goalkeeper is a very important position*, and that I'd much rather have the defence and midfield take care of attacks before they get to a point in which the goalie has to bail them out. That said, it's a nice luxury to have an elite 'keeper corps, and while I wouldn't rank Chelsea's as amongst the top in the league (City, United, Liverpool, and probably Everton all have better #1s), they're solidly in the second tier.
The Czech number one was purchased from French side Rennes in one of ill-fated manager Claudio Ranieri's final moves with the team for the bargain price of £3.5M. Swiftly inserted into the first team due to an injury to Carlo Cudicini, he made his debut as a 22 year old in the season opener against Manchester United and kept a clean sheet, setting the tone for Chelsea's first title in 50 years. The future seemed astonishingly bright. Cech was (and still is) one of the finest pure shot stoppers in the league, and combined with an experienced back line brought huge stability to the position for more than two years. Then came the Reading game, and things came tumbling down.
It's not as though he doesn't have the ability to be an excellent goalkeeper. He reads plays well, anticipates shots, and is incredibly acrobatic. He's also far braver than anyone who's gone through his injuries has any right to be, diving at striker's feet with little regard for that October day. However, it's become apparent that there's a flaw in his - and therefore Chelsea's - game: the high ball into the box. Considering his height and the aerial ability of his centre backs, it's not entirely clear why this is so. Certainly he doesn't read crosses particularly well, but there often seems to be a breakdown in communication between Cech and his defensive partners. The more it happens, the worse it seems to get. Cech doesn't seem to trust Terry and company to deal with crosses, and so comes out to get balls he shouldn't be anywhere near, and the defenders don't seem to trust that their goalkeeper will be in the right place and look wary of having Cech punch them in the box of the head whenever they try to get the ball away in the penalty box. Since the injury, something hasn't looked quite right, and if a team wants to get to Chelsea, high crosses are the way to do it. Cech is pretty fragile, having missed significant time all to often in his career with the Blues, and he's currently out with a calf tear sustained during training, which means he'll miss the start of the season. This brings us to our backup keepers, Henrique Hilario and Ross Turnbull.
Hilario is the sort of player who'd be an easy starter on most Premier League sides. He's average to just above at every aspect of the game, which isn't good enough to play at a team like Chelsea but works very well s a backup. The defence looks a lot more comfortable clearing the ball with Hilario in net (perhaps he doesn't yell at them as much), but the Portuguese doesn't have nearly Cech's skill at blocking shots. This could become more of an issue if John Terry continues to allow defenders to run right by him, but for now I wouldn't be too worried about it. I was relatively impressed by Hilario's command of the penalty area in the Charity Shield match, but suboptimal positioning in the last minute gave Dimitar Berbatov the chance for an easy lob, which was converted with aplomb. Chelsea are going to be significantly more vulnerable all-around when they start Hilario, but they might be better off against teams who favour bombing the ball into the penalty area for a tall centre forward, Cech's major weakness.
English prospect Ross Turnbull was acquired in summer 2009 from Middlesborough to serve as Petr Cech's understudy. The 25-year-old looked shaky at times in preseason matches and with the reserve squad, but has seen the field for the first team relatively infrequently, only starting a pair of matches for the club and failing to distinguish himself one way or the other. Turnbull has a high opinion of himself, believing that he can one day displace Cech as Chelsea's number one, but he's not ready for that just yet, and you'd have to worry about what might happen should Turnbull get major playing time.
*I imagine that this would take a post of its own to explain - all in good time!