Considering what has proved an arduous campaign for all involved this term, it feels fitting two big-money summer signings – Manchester City centre-back Rúben Dias and Chelsea forward Timo Werner – helped their respective sides to earn a Champions League Final berth on May 29.
growing in confidence: Ruben Dias, city’s dependable wall
Tuesday night marked seven months, almost to the day, since Rúben Dias made his Manchester City debut on a tricky evening at Elland Road against Marcelo Bielsa’s determined Leeds side.
An encouraging but unspectacular debut, plenty has happened since: he’s kept 29 clean sheets for club and country, won a piece of silverware and endured some uncertain moments too.
None feel more decisive in shaping City’s season than when they travelled to north London and were exposed by Tottenham’s smash-and-grab tactics under Jose Mourinho on November 21.
Tottenham were top of the table through 10 games, everyone lauded Jose’s turnaround at Spurs while City and the chasing pack had work aplenty to catch them.
This week, the Citizens can be crowned Premier League champions for the third time in four seasons, while Mourinho agreed a three-year deal at Roma after this campaign’s conclusion.
Dias, who turns 24 next Friday, has made 46 appearances across all competitions since his £65m move from Benfica was complete at the end of September. He’s played just shy of 4,000 minutes with Aymeric Laporte and, more prominently, John Stones alongside him in central defence.
Laporte’s injury woes have been well-documented, while Stones never looked the same confident player beside Nicolas Otamendi that he did alongside a leader like Vincent Kompany.
The deal, while another lucrative financial outlay, made sense for both parties. Displays like his against PSG just accentuate how important he has been to their defensive solidity this season.
It could’ve been a completely different game, had VAR not overruled the referee’s decision to penalise Oleksandr Zinchenko for a phantom handball or these two key first-half incidents:
Helped by Riyad Mahrez’s early opener, City were comfortable and knew they had an aggregate lead to protect. Kyle Walker, Stones and Zinchenko all did their bit, but none were as goal-saving and dramatic as their Portuguese teammate, chipping away at PSG’s hopes with each big block.
City fans are understandably quick to compare Dias’ presence to Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, widely regarded as the world’s best centre-back and finished second in Ballon d’Or voting (2019).
Yet we’ve already been down this route once before – Laporte – and now the Frenchman has been rotated for important games rather than a bonafide starter, such is Stones’ form of late.
There were many players to pick from, including Phil Foden and matchwinner Mahrez but Dias was a deserved Man of the Match winner this time out, after producing an ever-present showing which will have Chelsea’s forwards mindful of his influence ahead of May 29. Speaking of…
persistence pays off: Timo Werner, buzzing about brilliantly
Real Madrid relinquished possession for fun, played into Chelsea’s hands and took nnecessary risks, but the Blues still had to seize their advantage when the time came. I could wax lyrical about N’Golo Kante’s Man of the Match display, Edouard Mendy’s saves, Mason Mount and more.
But instead, it was the man criticised and questioned most who rose with a decisive display – goal aside – buzzing about brilliantly for just under 70 minutes overnight. How did we get here?
Considering the Hakim Ziyech deal was done beforehand, Timo Werner represented the first and perhaps most exciting of Chelsea’s summer business at £49m from Bundesliga side RB Leipzig.
Many were surprised when he rejected finishing what he started with Leipzig in the accelerated post-lockdown Champions League knockout format, instead committing to settle quicker under Frank Lampard.
Anyone aware about Werner’s career trajectory will know the unavoidable avalanche that followed his struggles in-front of goal this term is something he’s endured before, albeit in different circumstances. But at Chelsea, expectations and pressure are considerably higher.
Especially given their well-known striker curse, from Gonzalo Higuain and Álvaro Morata in recent seasons to Fernando Torres and many more who faltered before him. In 47 appearances (3,413 minutes) he has scored 12 goals and created 13 across all competitions this season.
By comparison, academy product Tammy Abraham (22) – largely expected to leave this summer – has 12 goals and six assists in 1,533 minutes this term but hasn’t started a game since February 20.
Only Patrick Bamford (21) and Jamie Vardy (18) have missed more big chances than Timo’s 17 in England’s top-flight. Both feature in the top ten for goals, while Werner is lagging behind considerably – a fact not lost on their hopes of a top-four finish. They might not need it though.
Lampard was sacked at the end of January, Tuchel swiftly replaced him and inherited a talented team but quickly got to work masking their defensive frailties while empowering certain players who were being highlighted as potential long-term problems, including yours truly:
It makes this, in the biggest game of the campaign, all the more significant given his struggles. Many have quickly branded him a flop, deep into the first season of a five-year lucrative contract that may still age poorly. But if Tuchel’s arrival says anything, it’s that things can change quickly.
“He misses the chance and everybody is passionate to talk about it, which is a bit annoying. It’s easy to point the finger to Timo, which I will not accept. I am happy he is back here [at Chelsea], because here, he is protected.”
Tuchel on Werner, after his big miss on international duty for Germany
Chelsea broke with ease and purpose – whether it was Kai Havertz, Mount, Werner or someone else flying forward against a Madrid backline pulled apart too many times to count. After having an earlier finish disallowed for offside ten minutes prior, you could excuse Timo’s sigh of relief.
Sure, Havertz should’ve scored as Thibaut Courtois charged forward but Kante and Werner were key in the build-up to the chance being created. The latter simply couldn’t miss the rebound.
Although he was far from perfect himself, Werner might’ve had a hat-trick to his name before coming off for an energised Christian Pulisic had Havertz been more unselfish in the final third:
These next two GIFs, from the same sequence defending a corner-kick, are the sort of tireless work that goes unnoticed:
Although it feels as though there are still some teething problems with regards to their collective decision-making under pressure, the creative trident – he, Mount and Havertz – worked well together to good effect against a Real backline who had no answers for their combination play:
After their 2-0 win overnight, Chelsea have six fixtures to finish an arduous but potentially sweet campaign, starting Saturday in a Champions League Final dress rehearsal against Pep’s men.
An unpredictable London derby hosting Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal follows that, before looking to secure a second FA Cup triumph in three years against a bullish Leicester side (May 15).
They welcome them again alongside some home fans to Stamford Bridge three days later, before finishing the top-flight term at Villa Park – where their top-four status could be decided.
Then it’s to Istanbul for an unlikely but deserved third Champions League Final in the club’s history. There, you can’t help but feel Werner, much like Dias at City, will have a big part to play.
Pictures source: Getty Images — GIFs captured myself