As Petr Čech aims to bow out on a high, Granit Xhaka believes Arsenal’s ‘new mentality’ could prove the difference
BY GRAHAM HUNTER
No matter how widely travelled and successful his career, Petr Čech had never been to Baku. But he dreamed he would be in the Azerbaijan capital tonight.
And after a footballing odyssey at Chelsea, during which the Czech keeper won trophies, admiration and friends in equal measure, he dreamed that the Blues would permit him to join their London rivals, Arsenal, in search of the first-team football he craved. He dreamed, too, that having decided this would be his final season between the sticks, just short of 20 years after his professional debut for Chmel Blšany against Sparta Praha, he could carve out one last shot at winning his third European medal.
And here he is. In Baku, sporting the club badge of the Gunners and within one great performance of winning the UEFA Europa League in his last competitive match. Multilingual as he is, Čech knows that a ‘sen’ in his national language, ‘un rêve’ as it would have been when he played in France for Stade Rennais, can come true.
Ask him to explain why story-book endings are bestowed on certain players and he answers with passionate conviction: “You have to believe in your dream – that’s the only way! To work hard is one thing, but then you must still really believe that dreams do come true – otherwise they might not. Everybody’s telling me I’m crazy to retire now. But I decided to retire on my own terms.
“As a little boy, you dream of playing in a European final, you watch them on TV and they’re probably why you go to train every day. So, my last dream was to play this European final with Arsenal. That is what I’ve made happen throughout my career – things I’ve dreamed of have actually come true. Now my final dream as a professional football player is to win this last final.”
PETR ČECH IN NUMBERS
His first Premier League title in England, 14 years ago, was for Chelsea as they pushed defending champions Arsenal into second. It does seem somewhat fated, if the curtain must fall on a glorious footballing career, that it will be while playing in his first final for his Reds against his Blues.
Čech’s first professional medal also carried UEFA’s hallmark, after victory in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship final against France in 2002. Coincidentally, it was played in the city where a young Granit Xhaka was growing up and in the stadium of the club the then nine-year-old had just joined – Basel. Seventeen years on, the duo are team-mates. And while Xhaka will do all he can to help Čech bow out on a high, he has a dream of his own – a first European trophy.
“Before that semi-final in Valencia, a friend sent me a message reminding me that we were ten years on from me winning the FIFA U-17 World Cup with Switzerland – this is my first international final since then,” the Arsenal midfielder said. “My dad flew over from Switzerland to watch us beat Valencia at Mestalla and that made me very proud.
“We stumbled against Atlético in the semi-final last season, but we learned a lot from that. And the manager [Unai Emery] has been part of the difference. If you evaluate his work after less than a year, it’s amazing. He’s brought a new mentality to this team. He’s pushed us a lot, on the pitch and in training. We train harder, we train more and that’s why we are in the final.”
Xhaka brings the vitality, the hunger, the engine; qualities Emery values highly. Čech brings the experience to help Arsenal seize this chance. His record in finals is also spectacular. In that U21 triumph, he saved two penalties against France in the final; in the 2008 UEFA Champions League final shoot-out, he saved Cristiano Ronaldo’s spot kick; and when winning that competition in 2012, he made three penalty saves in the Munich final.
His role as this squad’s professorial figure, able to help prepare them to win a European final, started immediately once Valencia had been dispatched. “That role is where my experience can play a part. You speak to the guys, you guide them through, because when you reach a UEFA final, there is a lot of pressure on everybody. As a senior player who’s been through it, you must ensure that all the players go into this match with the right mindset. We are on the edge of making history for Arsenal – a fantastic football club. All the supporters and everybody connected to the club deserves the joy of winning a European final having waited so long.” And having dreamed.