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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 March 2019

Europa League: Rennes return will give Arsenal keeper Petr Cech chance to say 'au revoir' to club that helped launch his career

Czech will line up in goal for Arsenal in Europa League last-16 tie against French club he spent two years with from 2002

Petr Cech signed for French club Rennes in 2002 and will face his former club on Thursday in the Europa League when he lines up in goal for Arsenal. Reuters
Petr Cech signed for French club Rennes in 2002 and will face his former club on Thursday in the Europa League when he lines up in goal for Arsenal. Reuters

In the summer of 2002, a young, strikingly tall Czech footballer was elected player of the tournament at the European Under 21 championships. He was a goalkeeper, a role not often rewarded with these sort of prizes. But he was his country’s obvious hero, having saved two penalties in the shoot-out that decided the final in favour of the Czech Republic against France.

Petr Cech caught the eye for his heroics throughout the competition, but the club who acted most decisively to clinch his signature were Rennes, of Ligue 1. They paid around €5 million to Sparta Prague for the 20 year old. To look at that fee now, in the light of the fact that the most expensive keeper in the world, Kepa Arrizabalaga cost Chelsea 16 times that amount last summer, is to acknowledge Cech was one of the bargains of the century.

Should Kepa ever become half as lauded or successful at Chelsea as Cech was at the same club, he will retire a very proud man. There have been long periods, all of them during the 11 years Cech spent at Chelsea, until 2015, that he was considered among the finest three goalkeepers active anywhere in the game - his companions on that podium tended to be Gigi Buffon and Iker Casillas - and as he prepares to discard his gloves and his now distinctive head-guard for the last time in two months or so, Cech will be remembered by many as perhaps the absolute No 1 of his generation of glovemen.

Certainly, at Rennes, there are many supporters who would put him the club’s best-ever XI. Cech will be reminded of that this Thursday evening in the north of France when he keeps goal for Arsenal in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie against Rennes. He can expect appreciative banners in his honour, in French and in Breton, the language of the region.

Cech impressed with his diligence in learning French from the moment he arrived in Rennes, nearly 19 years ago, and with the maturity and authority of his bearing. He developed as a keeper, as the coach he first worked with in France, Christophe Lollichon told Le Telegramme: “He would work hard on his analysis, always asking questions, looking over videos of matches. He was a joy to work with.”

Lollichon recalls encouraging Cech to become more dominant, add to his excellence in catching high balls, his quality in one-on-one duels, with practice at playing a higher line when his team were in possession, at using his feet more. Those were prerequisites for any goalkeeper with ambitions for the elite in an age where successful teams were cultivating a high-pressing style, looking to their last line of defence to be their first line of attack.

Cech’s long-range kicking would be an important part of his portfolio in his glory years at Chelsea, who at times during their Premier League title-seasons of 2004 to 2006 he likened to “a machine”. He arrived there in the summer of 2004, for a fee of under €10m, and within nine months had helped Chelsea to their first English title since the 1950s; another immediately followed, and soon afterwards he offered ample evidence of his courage, coming back from a serious fracture of the skull which required him to wear head protection from then on.

His hold on a guaranteed first-team place at Chelsea endured for a decade, through a Champions League triumph via penalty-shoot-out against Bayern Munich - he saved two spot-kicks in the 2012 final - until Thibaut Courtois eclipsed him. Hence Cech’s move to Arsenal, where the gloves were his for most of his first three seasons.

They tend to be his only in the cup competitions and in the Europa League these days, his place in the hierarchy for Premier League matches beneath that of Bernd Leno, the German. Leno is younger, and evidently more thoroughly versed in the skills of passing and controlling the ball with his feet. Leno is a goalkeeper of his time; Cech’s era put less of a premium on the sweeper-keeper.

Hence the giant Czech’s decision to retire at the end of this season, and his vivid excitement that this trip back to Rennes would form part of the path towards what he hopes is a glorious goodbye, with a European final in May.

"Magnifique!" he apparently texted to friends in France when the draw paired Arsenal and Rennes. It is his opportunity to say "au revoir "in person to the club that was his launchpad, his chance to nourish the idea that he will bow out on a high.

Updated: March 7, 2019 11:51 AM

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