Rudiger’s final wish granted
There were still 24 minutes to play at Stamford Bridge yesterday when the fourth official raised his board and Antonio Rudiger’s final Chelsea game was brought to an end. The German was replaced by Ross Barkley, who went on to score a late winner as the Blues ended their campaign with a 2-1 victory over Watford.
Rudiger will officially depart Chelsea at the end of next month when his contract expires. Yet the reality is as of this morning, his Blues career is over. Real Madrid will be the 29-year-old’s next destination; it is a glamor move for the center-back who has proved himself one of Europe’s best over the past 18 months.
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It was not an easy decision for Rudiger to walk away. His children were born in London and in Rudiger’s own words, he “became a man” during his time at Stamford Bridge. He will leave behind a strong group of friends and the adulation of the Chelsea supporters – something he wanted to feel one last time against Watford.
As Rudiger left the pitch, he did so to a standing ovation. He embraced Reece James as chants of “Rudi” echoed around the stadium and made sure to shake hands with members of Tuchel’s staff, the substitutes, and the Chelsea players who were not involved due to injury.
“Toni wanted that [moment] and we gave it to him because he deserved to have that moment and this is what you get if you deliver, “Thomas Tuchel admitted after the game.” We will miss him, and we will miss Andreas Christensen and a lot of guys maybe. We will have to start rebuilding if we are to be competitive. “
For Rudiger, a five-year chapter of his career is over. A new one will be written but he accepts that the experiences he lived at Chelsea will always mean a lot to him. “For me, my family, my wife, It’s really special,” Rudiger said. “I can understand all the disappointment [with the decision to leave] and everything, but to still come out and give me this reception …. thank you very much
A welcome – but scary – return
It’s impossible to know how Chelsea’s season would have panned out had Ben Chilwell been available for the entirety of it. The ACL injury suffered by the England international against Juventus in November was a bitter blow, one the Blues arguably did not recover from in the Premier League.
For months Chilwell has worked hard in the gym at Cobham and on the training pitches at Chelsea’s training base. Yet there was little expectation he would be back in action before the season had wrapped. However, after the 25-year-old returned to first-team training at the start of the week, Tuchel decided to take a risk.
He named Chilwell in the match-day squad to face Watford; the wing-back was among the substitutes. And in the 89th minute, even though the game was level at 1-1, Tuchel opted to introduce Chilwell in place of his good friend and Chelsea Player of the Year Mason Mount.
“It was a bit scary that maybe it was too much,” Tuchel told Chelsea’s in-house media after the game. “He has been in training but not full, full training, but it well deserved for him. He has worked hard to be back and I was happy he had the chance to have some minutes.”
The hard work is not done for Chilwell, though. He will have some time off but is set to return a week early for pre-season training to ensure that when the majority of the first-team squad are back at Cobham on July 2, he is ready and able to push himself and cement his spot back in the side.
“Psychologically, now I know [that I’ve made a return], “Chilwell explained.” I’ve had a week of training with the boys and I’ve come on in the last game of the season. So I can really hit the ground running now in pre-season.
“I get a few weeks [break] but then I’m back in. I’ve got a lot of work to do still. The season is going to come around very quickly so it’s important that I work hard over the summer to make sure that I am flying come pre-season. “
The one disappointment
There was nothing riding on yesterday’s encounter at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea – barring a Tottenham Hotspur miracle – had secured third spot and Watford’s relegation had been confirmed a fortnight ago. So it felt like the ideal opportunity for Tuchel to involve a few players from the Blues’ academy.
That did not happen. Instead, he handed minutes to senior pros who have spent the campaign – or the majority of it – with the first-team squad but have not enjoyed regular game time. Kenedy began at left wing-back. Saul Niguez occupied a central midfield role. Barkley was brought off the bench.
“We gave some players the opportunity to play who did not have so many minutes. So I’m happy they could show up and take a deserved win,” Tuchel said, and his loyalty to those players is admirable. The problem is the knock-on effect that comes with overlooking the club’s own.
In the past 12 months, Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guehi, Tino Livramento and Tammy Abraham, all academy graduates, have departed Chelsea. Each had their own reason for doing so – and all were equally valid – and it’s quite the talent drain. And history may repeat itself again this summer.
Several promising members of the club’s academy sides are out of contract in 2023 – and as things stand, there once again does not appear to be a genuine pathway to the first team. If the likes of Lewis Hall and Harvey Vale can’t make the bench for a dead rubber against Watford, what chance do they do for a Premier League game when there are crucial points at stake?
There is a trickle-down impact too as parents of talented players in Chelsea’s Under-14s and Under-15s – and further down the age groups – will be watching first-team developments carefully. At this moment in time, the Blues can offer a brilliant football education to any youngster but perhaps not the real-world experience required to thrive in the cut-throat modern game.
Many will hope that changes under the eye of Todd Boehly, whose consortium is set to complete their takeover of the club from Roman Abramovich in the coming ten days. It’s been reported the US billionaire views the academy as a huge asset and given the players produced in recent years, it’s hard to see why. Chelsea, quite simple, need to make greater use of their talent factory.