football

Antonio Rudiger proves again why Chelsea cannot afford to lose him



It seemed very befitting of the modern-day Chelsea to make up for a lack of ruthlessness in the first leg with a clinical defensive display in the second. A 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge last week should have been at least three, and so on Tuesday at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, they decided to get that overdue third and then sat on it for 72 minutes plus stoppage time.

As ever with the most robust displays under Thomas Tuchel, it was a team performance. And typically at its core was a dominant Antonio Rudiger.

Rudiger’s header – or rather, shoulder – from a corner in the first half made in 1-0. His usual no-nonsense self ensured the score stayed that way. From front to back, he was the difference on the night, with the video assistant a notable support act.

While Chelsea wait to see who out of Liverpool or Arsenal they will face in the final on 27 February, they could do with finally sorting out Rudiger’s contract situation. This performance, which puts him on the cusp of a fifth trophy at the club, was another superfluous reminder of his worth.

At some point, when Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich are vying for one of your players – even given the disorganised opulence that is the transfer strategy of the first two – you might wonder if allowing him to be so deep into his current deal, which expires in the summer, is gross mismanagement. To be fair to Chelsea, the latest noises are that club and player are finally on the same page after a period of resistance from both sides.

Nevertheless, it is still remarkable this has not been sorted yet. Rudiger only turns 29 in March, top-flight miles still in the tank, certainly if 37-year-old Thiago Silva is anything to go by. No one has started more Premier League games than his 20 of Chelsea’s 21 so far. Only Edouard Mendy, now away with Senegal at the African Cup of Nations, has as many, with Jorginho’s 15 the next highest.

Losing pace might be a factor over the years of a prospective new contract, but probably not by much given how conditioning and recovery have progressed in modern sport, particularly for those above 30. He certainly won’t lose strength, and the sight of him brushing off Harry Kane when the Tottenham captain had what looked like his first uninhibited sight of goal was a reminder of just how valuable it is. As of course was the way he wore contact with Pierluigi Gollini like a prom corsage for his third goal of the season.

Rudiger almost turned provider earlier, alert to Romelu Lukaku’s willingness to dip across Ben Davies. A high through ball found the Belgian at the perfect point, chesting in front of Davies but unable to beat Gollini.

A minute later, we got a look at the “bad” of Rudiger: a tempestuous off-the-ground challenge on Giovanni Lo Celso. VAR saved Chelsea the ignominy of conceding a penalty right on half-time, but it was a risk the German did not need to take. He was lucky not to receive a caution as a result of the switch to a free-kick just outside the box, though he showed no shame when infiltrating the huddle of white shirts around referee Andre Marriner to ridicule their complaints. And you’ll never guess who jumped highest to divert the resulting kick away from goal?

There was also something to take from the celebrations to the opener, as all in blue swamped Rudiger as he wheeled away to the corner. Since he joined in 2017, he has been a popular member of the squad, particularly with those breaking into the first team.

Trevoh Chalobah and Calum Hudson-Odoi, two of the brightest prospects at Stamford Bridge, credit his influence as guiding factors in their development. “He’s always believed in me and told me if I kept working hard I would get my opportunity,” said Chalobah back in October, who was first introduced to Rudiger by his brother, Nathaniel. “I have to say thanks to him for believing in me.”

Opportunities were limited under Frank Lampard, with talk of an exit in the summer of 2020. Then came just one start in the first 15 league games at the start of the 202-21 campaign which only exacerbated the matter. But Tuchel’s arrival around this time last year breathed life into Rudiger, reinstating him as both a starter and a key voice in the dressing room. In turn, Chelsea finished in the top four, won the Champions League and now are in with a second piece of silverware in less than a year,

Putting all that together, it’s worth reiterating how odd it is an extension has taken this long to ratify. A counter from those on the club side of these negotiations has been Rudiger’s demands which, right now, seem to reflect his achievements and continued impact.

What became clear as the second half wore on, with each clearing out header, interception of danger on the edge of the box and even busting down the right to squeeze out any prospect of a tetchy finish, is Rudiger’s impact shows no sign of dimming.

As social media went wild with speculative numbers that should adorn his contract, a couple of absolutes were clear. There are few defenders in the world as good as Rudiger, thus making him irreplaceable. Chelsea already came close to losing Rudiger once. And that was once too many.



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