Saturday, April 20 2024
Djordje Petrovic celebrating a Chelsea goal in a win at Luton

It is 26 years since a goalkeeper other than Petr Cech got his hands on the League Cup for Chelsea, but Kevin Hitchcock believes his old club have finally found somebody to permanently fill Cech’s gloves.

Djordje Petrovic worked under Hitchcock for 16 months at New England Revolution and is set to make his first-ever Wembley appearance against Liverpool in the final of the Carabao Cup on Sunday – only six months after arriving at Chelsea from Major League Soccer in a £14 million deal.

Hitchcock watched from the substitutes’ bench in 1998, when Ed de Goey kept a clean sheet to help Chelsea to their last League Cup success without Cech. Since then, the Blues have won the competition three times with Cech playing in all three finals.

“Chelsea have been crying out for someone since Petr Cech,” said Hitchock, who is goalkeeper coach at New England Revolution. “They’ve been crying out for a solid, solid number one. Before Petr was Carlo Cudicini. They’re big gloves to fill and I don’t think Chelsea have done very well in that department for the last six or seven years.

“Djordje does remind me of Petr, actually. Petr was a fantastic goalkeeper and he won a lot of games for Chelsea. Without a shadow of a doubt, Djordje can be a really top goalkeeper for a long time as well.”

Chelsea’s recruitment team, along with head of goalkeeping Ben Roberts, had started tracking Petrovic while he was still playing in the Serbian league for FK Cukaricki, earmarking him as a player to follow.

Hitchcock is not the only former Chelsea goalkeeper who has had a big impact on Petrovic’s career path. Ross Turnbull, who is the club’s goalkeeping scouting manager, was tasked with watching every one of the Serbian’s games for New England Revolution once it became clear Kepa Arrizabalaga was joining Real Madrid on loan.

And it was a former Liverpool goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, who Chelsea made a final check with as part of their due diligence before beating competition from Nottingham Forest, Brentford and Nantes to sign Petrovic.

Hitchcock, who watched video footage of Petrovic playing in Serbia before recommending New England Revolution sign him in 2022, said: “I look for certain things in a goalkeeper and certain things I can work with to improve them and make them better.

“Djordje had this ability to use a plyometric jump. So I knew I could make those jumps more explosive and more powerful, and quicker. Whether it’s coming for a cross or moving across your goal to dive. It all helps a good goalkeeper become a better goalkeeper.

“He also had this ability to make unbelievable saves. His frame is big, he’s got a big wing span with his arms, he covers the goal a hell of a lot. So just fine tuning those things was quite easy really.”

Petrovic punches clear during Chelsea's draw at Manchester CityPetrovic punches clear during Chelsea's draw at Manchester City

Cech has been impressed with what he has seen with Petrovic so far, but has also noticed the influence of head coach Mauricio Pochettino’s Spanish goalkeeping coach Toni Jimenez.

Speaking on Monday Night Football, Cech said: “I think that he’s a good athlete when you see him moving around the goal. He has fast feet and he has a really good push when you see his interventions, his reactions. When he pushes, he gets really far, so he seems like he has really strong legs. He has a very good reaction, we can see he stays on his feet and moves well.

“For my liking, sometimes he is too deep and that’s the philosophy you have. You drop deep pretty much on the goal-line and therefore you might have a little bit more time for the save, but you open the goal.

“I think Maurio Pochettino’s goalkeeper coach has been with him at Tottenham. He has the philosophy of you drop back, you always create space. It’s generally the Spanish philosophy. You see a lot of Spanish goalkeepers playing like that, dropping back on the line.

“I’m the other way around because I think that in a lot of situations, closing the angle for me, having less reaction time, but having less space to cover is the advantage.”

Jefferson Lerma's shot flies past Chelsea goalkeeper Djordje PetrovicJefferson Lerma's shot flies past Chelsea goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic

Petrovic was signed as number two to Robert Sanchez, but has grasped his opportunity since making his debut in December after the Spaniard suffered an injury.

Just as impressive as his performances has been the 24-year-old’s temperament. In just his third game, Petrovic helped Chelsea to a Carabao Cup quarter-final penalty shootout success over Newcastle United in which he saved Matt Ritchie’s spot-kick.

Club insiders say Petrovic’s humble and respectful demeanour has not changed at all since earning praise for his performances.

“I’m not surprised at all that he’s adapted so well,” said Hitchcock. “He adapted very, very quickly to America and the MLS, and he has this calming influence. He’s very calm with the ball at his feet and he’s very calm in every situation – he never gets flustered. That’s a good attribute to be a top, top goalkeeper.”

And Hitchcock has no fears over how Petrovic will cope with playing at Wembley. “I spoke to him very recently and he asked for my advice. I said just to absorb all of the day, all the build up, it’s a fantastic day. Show what you can do in the big arena and take everything in so you don’t forget it. These days don’t come around too quickly.”

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