"Petr Cech's season over. Don't ask me technically, but season over. And John - we have to play the final for him to play with us."
At the time, both seemed reasonable comments from Jose Mourinho. After all, Cech had reportedly dislocated his shoulder during the goalless first-leg draw at the Vicente Calderon, while a distraught John Terry again showed his sensitive side as he came off with a foot injury.
Cech, in particular, seemed an impossibility for the second leg, if not the remainder of the campaign. How could a goalkeeper return to fitness a week after popping his shoulder out?
But return he has. Six days on from Madrid, the giant Czech was training with the first team, as was Terry, although he was less doubtful as it appeared he had just suffered a knock or twist.
Cech has also said he expects to play on Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge, although Mourinho has denied this is the case.
Indeed, Mourinho went so far as to insist that Cech would not play - but then he had initially said he needed an operation and was out for the season, and that Terry would be unlikely to play until the final (Terry will probably start at Stamford Bridge), so who knows what to believe?
Whether Cech plays or not, this turnaround is nothing short of miraculous. Miraculous, that is, if we believed his claims about the full extent of the injury in the first place.
There is no doubt that Cech was in pain. But a dislocated shoulder takes at least a month to heal, and that’s presuming there was no muscle or rotator cuff tear. Usually we are looking at three to four months; certainly not one week.
There are three options for the Cech scenario:
1. Cech was never actually as badly injured as claimed, and had just suffered a heavy knock or twist. Mourinho’s insistence that his keeper needed an op and would miss the season run-in was a ploy to a. add weight to his decision to field a second-choice team against Liverpool, and/or b. derail Atletico’s preparations for the second leg.
2. Cech is actually still in recovery and his return to training is merely light. The statements about his availability to play in themselves a Mourinho ploy to confuse the opposition.
3. Cech says he is fit, will play, but at a huge risk of aggravating an injury that could rule him out for the season. Which he was already ruled out of, right? So a win-win situation...
The problem with scenario no. 3 is that a shoulder problem is career threatening for a goalkeeper; he needs full motion and control of his arms, and huge upper body strength to dominate the area.
Realistically, scenarios 1 or 2 should be presumed the most likely. Terry’s remarkably swift return hints at deliberate exaggeration from Mourinho, and one which helped focus the preparations for the Liverpool game.
Given his contradictory statements from the moment the injury happened, we should also take anything Mourinho says about the matter with a huge pinch of salt - do not be surprised if Cech is named in the team on Wednesday, even if it does seem highly unlikely.
Whether Cech features or not is not entirely relevant - what is relevant is that, from the moment Chelsea held Atletico in the first leg, Mourinho has been carefully manipulating the flow of information regarding his players.
Reading the comments on these articles and you sense a widespread cynicism towards the value of mind-games, but there is a similarly widespread misunderstanding of what mind-games actually are.
Ranting and raving at the press and rival managers are of little value on their own, but combined with the control and manipulation of information, they allow a successful gamer to control the narrative and mask the intent behind the more outlandish statements, either by acting as a lightning rod to absorb pressure from the players, or to deflect attention from the real issues.
Mourinho is a master of these little pokes and prods; Diego Simeone, aware of his histrionics from last season, will have done well to prepare accordingly.
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- Jose Mourinho
- Petr Cech