Palmer: Cech & Given spurred on by World Cup woe
FIFA President Sepp Blatter will be keen to promote the notion that next summer's World Cup finals will be the stage for the game's greatest players to display their talents, but the draw in Cape Town on Friday will make painful viewing for a couple of notable absentees.
Goalkeepers could just prove to be the weak link for many of the 32 finalists who will be lining up in South Africa six months from now, with Italy's Gianluigi Buffon and Spain's Iker Casillas the obvious exceptions amid a list of stoppers that may fill their followers with more fear than confidence.
Meanwhile, the two masterful custodians who are in line to do battle in Saturday's live ESPN Premier League offering will be left to lament what might have been when the World Cup gets under way, with Manchester City's Shay Given and Chelsea's Petr Cech set to enjoy a less-than-welcome extended summer break when their club duties come to an end this season.
Given, of course, can feel more aggrieved than most that he will not be lining up in his second World Cup finals as he was a victim of Thierry Henry's infamous handball in the play-off in Paris that denied Ireland their chance to take centre stage in South Africa. As for Cech and his Czech Republic team-mates, they cannot claim such misfortune after being conclusively left in third place behind Slovakia and Slovenia in qualifying.
Their respective World Cup disappointments mean Given and Cech will have additional motivation to make something of this 2009/10 campaign, with the Manchester City No.1 admitting the pain of his heartache in Paris still playing on his mind as he returns to club duty.
"I didn't sleep too much between the game in Paris and playing for City at Anfield the following Sunday," conceded Given. "It was hard to accept the way things turned out, but I got a fantastic reception from the Liverpool fans on the Kop and it was an emotional moment for me. I think they sympathised with our position. Obviously, I have to bounce back and try to win something with City."
Given's hopes of his first major piece of silverware in the game were boosted by City's emphatic Carling Cup victory against Arsenal on Wednesday night, while Cech's Chelsea surprisingly slipped out of the competition as they went down to a penalty shoot-out defeat at Blackburn.
As has been the custom under Carlo Ancelotti's guidance this season, Cech was rested for the trip to Ewood Park, but he has joined Given in admitting his World Cup exclusion will give him extra incentive to win a major prize with Chelsea this season.
"It was not easy for the Czech side in the qualifiers and we were trying to catch up from an early stage," he said. "Maybe we are in a transitional period, but it doesn't make missing the World Cup any easier. It means I have to do something special with Chelsea this season and we all feel there is a great chance for us to have success."
Cech's return to top form last season came after he lost his way at the back end of the 2007/08 campaign with Chelsea before enduring a nightmare at Euro 2008 with his national team, yet he believes those dark days are now a grizzly nightmare from his past.
Critics claim he has never been the same player since an unfortunate head injury suffered against Reading in 2006 jolted his confidence to its core, with his doubters claiming the stopper who has sported a head guard ever since lacks the self belief to handle high balls into his box.
However, Cech remains a formidable last line of defence who has the total backing of his coach. "People were saying Petr was out of form when we conceded some goals from set-pieces a few weeks ago, but I say he is a keeper who likes to take risks and most of the time he makes the right decision," said Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti. "While some keepers don't have the courage to try and challenge for the ball, Petr is the opposite. I like his approach and he is a vital player for us."
Chelsea's commanding position atop the Premier League will be tested to the full by big-spending City in what is the outstanding fixture in England this weekend, though it seems Cech's domestic ambitions may just be secondary to his dream of finally landing the Champions League crown this season.
"People are saying we are favourites for the Premier League and that brings some pressure, but the Champions League is the trophy we all want. We came so close in the 2008 final and when you have let a chance like that go, the only response is to get back to the final and win. Luck seems to have been against us in the Champions League so far, so maybe our new manager can bring the luck he had with him in this competition at AC Milan to Chelsea."
Given's dreams of winning the Champions League will have to wait for a year at least, yet the Irishman is convinced City's run of seven straight Premier League draws has not undermined their ambition to break into the elite top four positions this season.
"It was always going to take a bit of time for our defence to settle down and that has been the case," said Given. "The club brought a lot of new players in the summer and it never happens that a side clicks from day one. Obviously, we need to start keeping a few more clean sheets to get the wins we want, but I'm convinced they will come. The quality we have at the club now means we have to succeed at some stage."
It will forever remain a mystery as to why no major club made a move to sign the brilliant Given while he did his level best to keep Newcastle's leaking defence together for the last decade, with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger and Manchester United chief Alex Ferguson among those who must be regretting their refusal to recruit a keeper who has been among the best in the game for many a long year.
In the end, it was City boss Mark Hughes who made the move to put Given on the big stage and he is convinced his man is the finest keeper in the Premier League, with his admiration for the 102-capped Irishman confirmed with the comparisons he makes.
"I was lucky to play with Neville Southall for Wales and Peter Schmeichel at Manchester United and Shay is right up there with those two," said Hughes. "Top sides need a great keeper and we probably have the best in the league in Shay. I knew he was a good player when I signed him, but he is even better than I thought."
If Given and Cech are the finest two keepers in the Premier League game, their personal battle at the City of Manchester Stadium this Saturday may just provide Hughes with the evidence he requires to back up his claims that his man deserves to be recognised as the best around.