Petr Cech returns ‘home’ tonight embracing the challenge of a new competition, and is hoping we can use the Europa League to banish the ghost of last summer’s Super Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid.
The goalkeeper, still nursing a broken finger, will face Sparta Prague, a team he represented early in his career as we enter our eighth competition of the campaign. The aim is to reach a final in Amsterdam that would see us back competing for the UEFA Super Cup next season.
‘If you win the Europa League you can play in the Super Cup. We lost the Super Cup last year and were really disappointed about that,’ Cech said. ‘We can add that trophy into the cabinet which we’ve never won before, and then we can play the Super Cup again with the chance to win another trophy. Any competition I always want to win. I am here and I want to win.
‘We didn’t turn up against Atletico Madrid. It’s hard to explain. We didn’t play well at all from the first minute until the last and we were beaten by a team that’s not better than us. We had won four or five games in a row and nothing went right, we couldn’t find a rhythm.’
That lack of rhythm continued into our Champions League campaign, where moments of excellence and excitement were ultimately fruitless as we bowed out behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus.
Cech watched last night’s action with a hint of envy, but is determined to make the very most of the Europa League.
‘You know you should be there but you’re not and it’s our mistake. So we have to play another competition but I don’t see it as something bad. This is my first ever start in the Europa League, and it’s interesting. If you win the Europa League you have a trophy the club never won.’
His debut in this competition comes on familiar ground, where his national side play their home games. There will be 20 to 25 family and friends watching on from the stands this evening.
‘It is a special game because since I left Sparta Prague in 2002 I never had a chance to play a Czech team in any competition,’ the goalkeeper said. ‘It’s the first time I’ve gone home to play a team in any competition.
‘It’s exciting and kind of strange at the same time. Last time I was at the stadium as a visiting player was in 2000 as a Plzen player. I’ve played there for the national team and know the stadium well, but I am a visitor which is strange.’
Cech knows the opposition well, and believes they will be fresh and more than up for the challenge of hosting the European champions.
‘They had five weeks pre-season and a month off so it’s hard to say how they will start,’ he said. ‘They have good dynamics on the sides and younger players with speed, so that could be the way they try to catch us out. They are coming from pre-season and hungry to play games.
‘They will be highly motivated and have nothing to lose. This is the danger of the game. It will be very cold, it might snow because they have had heavy snow, but hopefully the pitch will be okay.
‘In the Czech league the stadium is more than half empty, it has been for some years, but for European nights it is full and the atmosphere is fantastic. It’s an extra motivation for their players.’
None will be more motivated than Cech, however, and he was determined that a broken little finger would not stop him from taking the stage in his homeland.
As the Czech Player of the Year, he will be expecting a warmer reception than most visitors normally would in this chilly and snow-covered part of Europe.