Cahill: The rise of Chelsea's classy international centre-back
If there was one consolation for Chelsea supporters (and England fans) who endured the national side's stultifying performance against Ukraine on Tuesday --in which Roy Hodgson’s boys creepy-crawled their way closer to World Cup qualification in a scoreless draw -- it was the stellar performance of Blues defenders Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole.
Cole has, for the past decade, been widely recognized as the best left-back in the Premier League, with his proven pedigree never in doubt. Cahill, on the other hand, has had to graft throughout his career, developing his game along the way and seizing the opportunity to impress when it has been afforded.
On Tuesday night in Kiev, Cahill, 27, put in an epic shift of resolute defending from start to finish. Commanding in the air, impassable on the ground, the Blues defender also demonstrated a refreshing ability to read the game, his distribution when in possession a joy to behold.
Forging a solid defensive partnership at centre-back for England with Everton's Phil Jagielka has not been easy, with critics swift to point out that neither player is world-class or of the same calibre as Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. But such things take time, and while the duo will face sterner examinations, the understanding developing between them and the zero-goals-conceded factor is worthy of some merit.
Signed from unfashionable perennial Premier League relegation battlers Bolton Wanderers by former Blues manager Andre Villas-Boas, Cahill arrived at Stamford Bridge in a low-profile 7 million-pound transfer window move in January 2012. Handed the No. 24 shirt, Cahill was initially viewed as a squad player, a half-decent centre-back brought in to provide cover for Terry and David Luiz.
On signing for Chelsea, Cahill had told the club website: "Chelsea is a massive club, it is a club that looks to win trophies season in season out and it is a big opportunity for me to be a part of that. Opportunities like this you can't turn down."
It was an honest statement, tinged with hope but carrying an underlying message that "being a part of it" was probably, in a Ross Turnbull sort of way, about as good as it was going to get. Within a few weeks, however, Villas-Boas had been sacked and Cahill regularly found himself thrust into the defensive spotlight by interim boss Roberto Di Matteo as the twin perils of injury and suspension bedeviled Terry and Luiz.
It’s a long way from the Reebok to the Camp Nou, but when David Luiz picked up an injury playing for Chelsea in the 5-1 FA Cup semi-final demolition of Spurs at Wembley, Di Matteo turned to Gary Cahill to partner JT at center-back in what turned out to be a very solid 1-0 Champions League first-leg victory for the Blues over Barcelona at Stamford Bridge.
Cahill was immense, but in the second leg a week later in Barca's Catalan cauldron, he tweaked a hamstring and was replaced by Jose Bosingwa after just 13 minutes. In the drama that followed, and despite Terry's first-half red card, Chelsea played out a 2-2 draw and booked their place in the final -- a game the suspended Terry would have to miss.
The chance to play in the final of the Champions League was there for Cahill -- the question was, would he be able to regain his fitness in time to be considered for selection? The answer, of course, was yes. But only just. On May 19, four short months after his arrival from Bolton, the fit-again Cahill took his place in Chelsea’s starting line-up in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, and the rest as they say is history.
Not even in his wildest "it’s a big opportunity for me" dreams could Cahill have believed how his season would map itself out -- with a Champions League winners’ medal around his neck.
Chelsea being Chelsea, it could have all ended there for Cahill. What a great story. But there was more to come. Rafa Benitez may have had his detractors in the dressing room when he was appointed as yet another Blues ‘interim’ boss following the unfortunate sacking of Di Matteo, but Cahill clearly wasn’t one of them, and under the Spaniard he emerged as the London club’s first choice centre-back capping a fine season during which he made 45 appearances and scored six goals with a Europa League winner's medal.
With Jose Mourinho now back at the Stamford Bridge helm, the sure-footed Cahill continues to flourish, starting every game of the new campaign so far and very much looking like an integral part of the Special One’s defensive plans. Cahill may have waited a long time to be given the chance to perform at the highest level, but he has certainly stepped up to the mark, and his nice-guy modesty is a breath of fresh air.
What lies ahead? In a forever-uncertain Chelsea world it’s hard to say. One thing’s for certain, though -- Gary Cahill looks like he’s here to stay.
Follow Mark Worrall on Twitter @gate17marco.