LONDON — There is a growing suspicion that apart from having the best team in the Premiership, Chelsea also has the two best goalkeepers in England’s top league.

Christopher Davies

Petr Cech, who joined Chelsea from Rennes after Euro 2004 is, by general consensus, the Premiership’s top goalkeeper.

On the few occasions he has played this season Cech’s backup, Carlo Cudicini — a regular until the Czech Republic international arrived — has proved that he has a justifiable claim to be better than just about any other goalkeeper in the Premiership.

Finland’s Antti Niemi (Southampton) and England’s Paul Robinson (Tottenham) are the only ‘keepers who could “split” the Chelsea pair.

What is remarkable is that the two clubs which are Chelsea’s biggest rivals for the title, Manchester United and Arsenal, do not have even one above average goalkeeper between them.

At United, Tim Howard and Roy Carroll have shared the duties over the past two seasons, with Carroll the first-choice at the moment after a couple of high profile errors by the American.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger recently dropped Jens Lehmann in favor of the almost unknown Manuel Almunia, ironically after the Spaniard’s mistake at Old Trafford saw United score the only goal in their League Cup quarterfinal tie.

Both United and Arsenal have bought some outstanding outfield players since the departure of Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman, yet neither club has adequately replaced the goalkeepers who served them so reliably for a decade.

Since Schmeichel left for Sporting Lisbon in 1999, United has tried Mark Bosnich, Raimond van der Gouw, Massimo Taibi, Fabie Barthez, Paul Rachubka, Andy Goram, Ricardo, Howard and Carroll.

While United has won the Premiership post-Schmeichel, none of his successors has been anything like the standard the club would reasonably expect — the Reds have dominated despite their goalkeepers, not because of them.

Wenger opted for Lehmann as the man to take over from Seaman (whom the Arsenal manager inherited) but the German, signed from Borussia Dortmund, has hardly been the inspirational and reliable goalkeeper “Safe Hands” Seaman was.

In fact, few would dispute that Cudicini is better by some distance than any goal ‘keeper United or Arsenal has.

Around half the goals Arsenal has conceded this season have come from set-pieces, a disproportionately high percentage which illustrates the lack of a truly commanding goalkeeper.

When Lehmann or Almunia come out for the ball the Highbury faithful say a collective prayer.

HOW IMPORTANT IS a goalkeeper to a team’s success?

Obviously any team that has a goalkeeper of the quality of Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus, the world’s best in his position, must benefit.

Yet last season’s Champions League winner FC Porto had Vitor Baia in goal and he was not considered good enough to make Portugal’s Euro 2004 squad.

Can anyone remember the name of Greece’s custodian as they became European champion?

Great Brazil teams of yesteryear did not have outstanding goalkeepers.

Fabien Barthez helped France win France ’98 and Euro 2000, but was dumped by United manager Sir Alex Ferguson — make of that what you like. Good enough for the European and world champion, but not wanted at Old Trafford.

When Arsenal won the Premier League two years ago, it used three different goalkeepers — who each played at least 10 games to qualify for winners’ medals — Seaman, Richard Wright and Stuart Taylor.

The best goalkeeping display in the Premiership this season was by Fulham’s Mark Crossley at Newcastle in his team’s 4-1 win.

Crossley, playing only because Edwin van der Sar was injured, almost single-handedly defied Newcastle, probably making 15 saves that had the home side shaking their heads in disbelief.

Having an outstanding goalkeeper is a help to any side in the quest for glory. Brian Clough reckoned Peter Shilton was worth 15 points a season to his Nottingham Forest side of the late 1970s.

On the other hand, there have been enough iffy ‘keepers on the winners’ podium over the years to make one wonder whether, if the defense is solid enough, you can get away with Mr. Average between the posts.

AS EVERY DAY seems to have been Christmas Day this year for Coleen McLoughlin, Wayne Rooney’s girlfriend, what will Santa Claus have in store for the teenager whose dress sense is proof that money cannot buy taste?

Rooney needs his estimated £2 million a year earnings to keep up with Coleen’s extravagances.

First things first and it is nice that Coleen has forgiven her boyfriend for his high-profile nocturnal wanderings, which saw him enjoy the dubious talents of a chain-smoking PVC-clad grandmother/hooker who trades as The Auld Slapper.

It must be difficult when your boyfriend’s ignominious private life is made public, but Coleen is still around with her £25,000 ring which Wayne gave to her to say “sorry.”

Not working means Coleen has time on her hands — or in her case a £20,000 Rolex.

To pass her expensive time she has taken to collecting things — cars.

What a challenge each day to choose between a Mercedes Benz convertible (£30,000), a BMW 4×4 (£40,000), a BMW V-8 roadster (£50,000) or a Porsche 911 (£60,000).

There’s another car somewhere but to list them all could give the impression of spending money, whose ever it may be, unnecessarily.

There are salesrooms with fewer vehicles on display in Liverpool, but Coleen obviously likes a variety of cars to take her shopping at Harvey Nicols in Manchester, where she has a personal shopper, a facility that includes a private shopping suite on the second floor complete with shower.

Two months ago, Coleen decided to take advantage of the strong pound against the dollar — and why not?

She (or to be more exact, Rooney) took a party of six friends to New York (so good she bought it twice) where Team Coleen was put up in the five-star Waldorf-Astoria.

Having shopped till she dropped, Coleen returned to Blighty, apparently unaware that while the good old USA is a lovely country, sadly it is not part of the European Community. Coleen failed to declare one or two things (the lot actually) and had to cough up £15,000 in taxes.

You can imagine the conversation. “Wayne, I bought all these nice things and you’ll never guess what . . .?”

The girl from Croxteth gave up the chance to go to university to become a footballer’s wife. Well, a footballer’s girlfriend.

She has quickly learned how to live up to the image, as buying bottles of champagne at almost £200 a time in a night club a couple of weeks ago proves.

Liverpool’s finest — The Beatles — told us the best things in life are free, but obviously sometimes you have to pay. And pay. And pay . . .

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