Neuer targets Cech mate

As the countdown starts to the Champions League final in Munich on Saturday 19 May, we will be looking at some of the key battles on the pitch and areas where the match might be won and lost. First up are the goalkeepers.

In the blue corner, Petr Cech. Signed by Italian Claudio Ranieri in 2004, the giant Czech goalkeeper never played under 'The Tinkerman', instead forming a burgeoning reputation as one of the world's best keepers under 'The Special One' Jose Mourinho. He won the first of three European Goalkeeper of the Year awards in his debut season in England. A damaging blow - no pun intended - to Cech's career came in October 2006 during a Premier League game against Reading. Leaving his goal to gather an over-hit through-ball, Cech was severely clattered by Irishman Stephen Hunt, which left him hospitalised with a fractured skull. The incident put him on the sidelines for three months but, in reality, it set his career back years. He now plays wearing a protective 'rugby scrum' headguard, seemingly as much for confidence as medical reasons. Despite maintaining a high standard, it is only this season that he has rediscovered the sensational form that marked his first season at Chelsea.

At 1.96 m (6 ft 5 in), Cech is naturally strong at crosses and has excelled this year, producing a string of crucial saves, most notably in the semi-final against reigning champions Barcelona. Cech also saved a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty in the 2008 Champions League final shoot-out. Allied to his agility, he is also a dynamic distributor of the ball, either with his favoured left foot or from throws. Turning 30 the day after the final, Cech has played in the Champions League in each of his eight seasons at Chelsea. His experience and stature make him a reassuring and commanding presence in goal for Chelsea.

In the red corner, Manuel Neuer. Despite his appearance as the new kid on the block, it is worth noting that Neuer is already 26. After starting his career at home town club Schalke 04, Neuer left Gelsenkirchen on a high, being named 'Best Bundesliga Player' in 2011. That season was also notable for a best-ever performance from Schalke 04 in the Champions League, reaching the semi-finals before being dispatched by Manchester United, with only Neuer's incredible performance keeping the scoreline to single figures. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson waxed lyrical after the match: "In my time at United it's the finest display of goalkeeping against us. He was incredible."

Bayern's future in safe hands. Photo courtesy FC Bayern Munich Despite his performances, it was inevitable that Neuer would stay in Germany. "I go abroad twice a year, once for a summer holiday and once for a winter holiday," explained Neuer before his estimated EUR20m transfer to FC Bayern was sealed. "But do I need to go abroad to play football? Some players say you ought to, but I see things differently." Initially receiving a luke-warm reception from Bayern supporters due to his close ties with rivals Schalke (he was greeted with 'No Neuer' signs on his arrival in Bavaria), the imposing 1.91 m (6 ft 3 in) glovesman set about winning their support. This season he has won over the doubters and broken the Bundesliga record for the longest consecutive time without conceding (over 1000 minutes), breaking former Bayern goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn's record. Add to that his semi-final penalty shoot-out saves from the world's two most expensive players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká, and you can see why he has turned the fans in Munich around.
Highly adept at making great saves from close range, Neuer is not only a great one-on-one shot-stopper with acute reflexes. He also boasts a gigantic punt, which is often the springboard for counter-attacks for club and country, as England know to their cost after a humiliating 2010 World Cup defeat against Germany.

Verdict: Almost too close to call. This is the area of the pitch that neither team needs to worry about. Although Cech has the experience, the slight edge must go to Neuer - especially if it goes to penalties on his home ground.


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