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May 21, 2014

Cech mate for Petr?

Chelsea's Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois
Chelsea's Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois
It's understood that 32 is a modest age for a goalkeeper -- hardly veteran stakes, yet legendary Chelsea custodian Petr Cech, who celebrated his birthday on Tuesday, could find himself warming the bench at Stamford Bridge next season. That's if Blues boss Jose Mourinho opts to bring perennial loanee Thibaut Courtois back to London following the 22-year-old Belgium international's outstanding three year apprenticeship with Atletico Madrid which could conclude this Saturday night with a Champions League winner's medal.

There is no doubting the pedigree of Courtois whose stellar performances between the posts for Los Rojiblancos were a key factor in Diego Simeone's team winning La Liga for the first time since 1996. Mourinho knows only too well that an outstanding keeper is a pivotal factor over the course of a season. Indeed the Portuguese need only look back at Cech's first season at the Bridge which coincided with his arrival as manager to understand the true value of a first class stopper.

As the tumultuous 2013-14 campaign entered its final phase, Chelsea were still very much in with a chance of winning the Premier League when Cech was laid low by a virus which prevented him playing against then-basement side Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. Veteran reserve keeper Mark Schwarzer took his place, but the 41-year-old, looking short of match practice, gifted the Black Cats an equaliser when spilling a soft Marco Alonso shot to allow Connor Wickham to score. The Wearsiders went on to win the game when Fabio Borini converted a penalty and the result not only effectively ended the Blues title challenge, but also handed Mourinho his first defeat in 78 Premier League games at the Bridge.

Three days later, Cech was back as Chelsea took on Atletico -- and Courtois -- at the Estadio Vicente Calderon in a Champions League semifinal first leg. But further misfortune followed for the Blues' keeper as he sustained a shoulder injury early on which would end his season. This time, substitute Schwarzer acquitted himself well in keeping a clean sheet and would go on to play in Chelsea's remaining matches which included the notable 2-0 victory against Liverpool at Anfield which all-but ruined the Reds' title bid.

If it hadn't ruined his club's season, Cech, a spectator for the Champions League return leg defeat against Atletico, would have been more than impressed with the contribution of Courtois. The youthful pretender to his Stamford Bridge goalkeeping throne starred in the Madrid club's 3-1 victory and, notably, a spectacular save from a John Terry header could have changed the course of the game.

As Cech celebrated his birthday this week, news broke that Mourinho had decided to cut loose another player who has served Chelsea phenomenally well during the trophy-laden Roman Abramovich era. Ashley Cole, who spent much of the season watching Cesar Azpilicueta fill his boots, won an impressive haul of medals in his eight years at the Bridge, but the 33-year-old is now looking for another club as the Blues decided against offering the England centurion a new contract.

Cech still has a couple of years to run on his current Chelsea deal, nevertheless the exit of Cole and the form of Courtois will be food for thought for the Czech international who recently underwent surgery to repair his injured shoulder. With the Czechs having failed to make it to the 2014 World Cup finals, the current Blues No. 1 faces the prospect of watching Courtois further enhance his burgeoning reputation with tournament dark horses Belgium.

For Chelsea supporters, the Cech vs. Courtois argument is a tough call. Cech, like Cole, is a bonafide Blues legend, but there comes a time in every player's career when the curtain has to come down. For Cole, it was a gradual event and there was an air of inevitability that the end was nigh for the finest left-back of the Premier League generation and maybe soon it will be a similar case for Cech.

Ten seasons in SW6 has seen the goalkeeper enter the pantheon of Stamford Bridge legends with records tumbling with every passing campaign from the outset to the present.

2005: Chelsea win the league with Cech securing the Golden Gloves award with a previously unparalleled 21 clean sheets during which he also set a new Premier League standard when going 1025 minutes unbeaten.

2014: Cech kept his 209th clean-sheet for the Blues surpassing Peter Bonetti's long standing club record. Sixteen Premier League clean-sheets was enough for a share of the Golden Gloves award with Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny.

To date, Cech has played 478 times for Chelsea ranking him sixth on the list of the club's roll call of appearance makers. Along the way he has amassed a dazzling array of medals having won the league three times, FA Cup four times, Champions League, Europa League and League Cup (twice). Quite simply Cech has been an era-defining player for the Blues -- peerless, solid, dependable - and mostly immovable. But after a decade of glory has the time come to step aside? That call, as with the Cole decision, is down to Mourinho.

Whatever the case may be, mild-mannered, affable, modest Petr Cech already has a special place in the hearts of every Blues supporter and he will go down in history as the greatest Chelsea goalkeeper of all time -- though it's just possible, 10 years down the line, Courtois might have something to say about that.