Petr Cech is on course to make his 100th Champions League appearance tonight, since making his debut in the competition 12 years ago.
While many will have considered our goalkeeper’s involvement in European’s top tournament to have been limited to his time at Stamford Bridge – particularly factoring in the club he joined from, Rennes, were at that time relegation-threatened and not Europe-bound – he did in fact play 12 times for Sparta Prague in a memorable 2001/02 campaign for the Czech side.
‘I was supposed to play my first game in the Champions League against Spartak Moscow in 2001 but then the 9/11 tragedy happened so all the games were postponed,’ recalls Cech. ‘So actually I had to wait one or two more weeks for my debut. It was away to Bayern Munich in the old Olympic Stadium and it finished 0-0.
‘At that time I never believed I would reach 100 games. It’s the same with the national team. If you play football you just dream to have at least one start. When you come in and start playing games you want to stay there as long as you can by keeping your standard, working hard and playing well. I’ve been really fortunate to have played so many. One hundred games is a great achievement.’
Though the bulk of Cech’s Champions League outings have come since his move to London, it is apparent that one season representing Sparta in his formative years helped play a crucial role in his European development.
‘It was different because when you play for Sparta Prague we had to fight to win every point. You’re not the favourite in any game, and we had a remarkable run that year,’ explains Cech of his former team, who impressively progressed through the first group stage before being knocked out in the now-defunct second group stage.
‘In those 12 games I played against Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Feyenoord and other good teams, so when I came to Chelsea I knew I could play against whoever. It was a massive help and an absolutely amazing experience.’
As Cech points out, European expectations shifted by the time he joined Chelsea in 2004. We were European Cup semi-finalists and unlike at Sparta, progression through the group stage was viewed as the bare minimum expected of the side. Our no.1 believes he has been able to play so many matches in the continent’s top competition principally because he is able to focus on maintaining his same high standard irrespective of whether he takes to the field for a training session or a Champions League final.
Tonight Cech’s focus is on winning the match, and in turn the tie. Now in his 10th season at the club, winning pivotal knockout games is something he clearly does not lack experience in, so the official Chelsea website pressed him for his favourite memory from those 87 Chelsea Champions League games to date.
‘All the ones you’ve played that were really big games stand out. When we beat Barcelona 4-2 in the second round in 2005 it was an absolutely amazing game.
‘Then you go on and the whole campaign of 2012 had some remarkable moments and some remarkable games that will always stand out. You get that extra-special feeling when you play semi-finals and finals because you know you are close and you don’t want to miss that opportunity. The winning final against Bayern – and in the circumstances that it happened – this is my favourite one.’
– You can listen to live commentary of tonight’s game on this website from 7.45pm.