JONATHAN Woodgate heaped praise on “first-class” Asmir Begovic, insisting the goalkeeper remains “exactly the same” as when the pair played together at Stoke City.

Begovic has been one of Cherries’ stand-out performers this season, following his surprise return to the club.

The Bosnian stopper fell out of favour under former boss Eddie Howe and found himself behind the likes of Aaron Ramsdale, Artur Boruc and Mark Travers in the pecking order in the summer of 2019.

Begovic, who joined Cherries from Chelsea for £10million in 2017, was loaned out to Azerbaijani side Qarabag, before later linking up with AC Milan on a temporary deal.

Many expected the 33-year-old to leave Vitality Stadium for good last summer, but following the departures of Ramsdale and Boruc, Begovic returned and saw off competition from Travers to become Cherries’ first-choice keeper once again.

He has played in 42 of the club’s 45 matches in league and cup this season, keeping a 17th clean sheet in Monday’s 2-0 victory at Blackburn Rovers. Begovic also saved a late penalty from Adam Armstrong during that win.

And Woodgate, who was a team-mate of Begovic’s during the 2011-12 campaign, says the Bosnian has not changed since their time together in the Potteries, where they lined up alongside one another 10 times in the Premier League and Europa League.

“He’s been exactly the same as when I first met him,” Cherries boss Woodgate told the Daily Echo.

“Exactly the same – consistent, a real good guy, humble and that’s what you want. His performances show that.

“When he first came here I always thought it was a good signing for Bournemouth. Okay, it didn’t go to plan. He’s had a few loans.

“He went to Milan and whatever, but I think this year he’s been really good. What I’ve seen of him since I’ve been here, he’s been nothing but first class.”

Begovic arrived at Cherries with a Premier League winners’ medal under his belt from his time at Chelsea.

He has also made 63 appearances for Bosnia & Herzegovina and until this season had not featured outside the top flight since loan spells at the likes of Ipswich, Yeovil, Cherries and Macclesfield more than a decade ago.

But Woodgate feels the goalkeeper has applied himself brilliantly to the new challenge.

“It’s because he doesn’t have an ego and he gets on with his work,” said Woodgate.

“He’s a true professional. He works hard with the keeper coach Mossy (Neil Moss) and I’ll tell you what, he’s a great example for the younger keepers of how to do it day in, day out.

“How to work and how to be at the top level but still have the enthusiasm of a 20-year-old goalkeeper.

“When you have senior pros like Asmir it can benefit you so much, like the younger keepers looking up to you and looking at Asmir and what it takes to get to the top. He’s been very good.

"A humble guy and I like working with him.”

Discussing how vital Begovic’s experience will be for Cherries during the run-in, with just one month now left of the regular season, Woodgate added: “It’s important.

“It’s always been an important position for me, goalkeeper.

“If you have a real solid one like Asmir, it can only benefit you. It breeds confidence to the back four.”