Petr Cech has revealed that he broke a finger by punching his Chelsea team-mate Gary Cahill in the head. It was during the Premier League defeat at Newcastle United on the Saturday before last and it was, of course, accidental, but mishaps have been a theme of Chelsea's season and they feel particularly pronounced in the Czech Republic, where they face Sparta Prague in the Europa League last 32 first leg on Thursday evening.
It was not supposed to be like this and Cech did not envisage an emotional return to his former club coming on European football's undercard when he lifted the European Cup last May, having been a hero in the penalty shootout defeat of Bayern Munich.
It is impossible to escape the feeling that Chelsea's involvement in the continent's second-tier competition represents some sort of punishment for their botched defence of the cup they won so dramatically in Bavaria. There are connotations of embarrassment, of humiliation and with the interim manager, Rafael Benítez, having made it plain that Champions League qualification is the absolute priority, while he bemoans an unforgiving schedule and an unbalanced squad, it is easy to imagine that Chelsea would desire a swift separation from an unwanted distraction.
Cech does not see it that way and his promotion of the Europa League's worth goes beyond the adage about being a highly focused professional who wants to win every match that he plays.
Chelsea could become only the fifth club to complete the sweep of Europe's main trophies, following Bayern, Ajax, Juventus and Barcelona (if you count the Fairs Cup, the Uefa Cup's forerunner which the Catalan club won). "It is an opportunity to make history, although it is history-making in a different way," Cech said. Moreover, the goalkeeper recognises the chance to scratch one of the itches from the early season, which continues to aggravate him.
"The way I look at it is, if you win the Europa League, you can play the Super Cup," Cech said. "We lost the Super Cup last August [4-1 to Atlético Madrid] and it was one of the low moments of the season. We went there with confidence and we didn't turn up. It's something that's very hard to explain and it's very hard to take. We didn't play well at all from the first minute to the last and we got beaten by a team that is not better than us."
Chelsea also crashed in the Club World Cup to Corinthians last December and it was put to Cech that Premier League players might struggle to raise themselves, on at least a subconscious level, for tournaments that, rightly or wrongly, are not highly prized in England. The same question is applicable to Chelsea's motivation in the Europa League.
"But we went to the Super Cup knowing that we'd had a very good start to the season [with three straight Premier League wins]," Cech said. "You just sensed in the moment that nothing would happen. Nothing went right, we couldn't find the rhythm, Atlético scored goals and that was it. Now we have a different situation. It's not great that we're playing in the Europa League … you know you should be in the Champions League but you're not. It is our own mistake."
There is no little irony in there being a raft of Chelsea discards competing in the Champions League last 16. Didier Drogba (Galatasaray), Nicolas Anelka (Juventus), Alex (Paris Saint-Germain) and Arjen Robben (Bayern) were moved from Stamford Bridge, while Michael Essien (Real Madrid) and Lucas Piazón (Málaga) are away on loan. There are also the former managers José Mourinho (Real) and Carlo Ancelotti (PSG).
Cech, though, has an eye-catching story-line of his own to embrace. He left Sparta for Rennes in 2002 – his move to Chelsea came in 2004 – and has not since returned to face a Czech team. He said he needed 25 tickets for family and friends, and the broken little finger on his left hand was never going to keep him in London. He sustained it in the 20th minute of the Newcastle game and he played on. He also completed the 90 minutes of Saturday's home win over Wigan.
"I punched a cross at Newcastle and I punched Gary Cahill's head at the same time," Cech said. "It's broken and yes, it hurts. Being a goalkeeper, you use your hands sometimes so it doesn't help. I've tried to protect it in training. But I've been here a long time and I have managed to play with broken shoulders, nose and head and everything, so a little finger cannot stop me. This will be a special game for me."
Benítez omitted Mikel John Obi and Victor Moses from his 19-man travelling party, in light of their exertions during Nigeria's triumphant Africa Cup of Nations campaign while Demba Ba is cup-tied, David Luiz suspended and Oriol Romeu injured. The squad arrived to snow in Prague and sub-zero temperatures are forecast for the tie, which kicks off at 7pm CET.
Sparta Prague (4-2-3-1): Vaclik; Zapotocny, Holek, Svejdik, Pamic; Husbauer, Vacha; Kadlec, Matejovsky, Krejci; Lafata. Subs: M Cech, Vidlicka, Balaj, Kweuke, Bednar, Polom, Kucera.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Lampard; Oscar, Mata, Hazard; Torres. Subs from Turnbull, Hilario, Azpilicueta, Ferreira, Bertrand, Marin, Benayoun, Ake.
Ref: D Orsato (It)
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image: © Ben Sutherland