Another dramatic Champions League campaign will conclude when Chelsea and Manchester City lock horns Saturday. Ahead of that much-anticipated final, theScore picks out five players who performed above expectations during their teams’ runs.
Pep Guardiola was careful with Foden’s development. During previous campaigns, the manager swatted away swarms of journalists who repeatedly asked about the English prospect’s supposed lack of starts, displaying an absolute belief in what he and the rest of his coaching staff had mapped out for the Stockport lad.
And City’s plan is working.
Foden, who turns 21 on Friday, has adopted a key role this season. Most of the time he’s on the left, maintaining the team’s width while angling runs through the heart of opposing backlines. He’s also earned widespread acclaim for his odd appearance as a false nine.
The versatile attacker has contributed three goals and three assists to help City reach the Champions League final, including his late strikes in each leg against Borussia Dortmund. Over his continental journey, Foden has developed a reputation for scoring important goals – he also notched a few as City collected silverware in the Premier League and League Cup – while developing a fear factor that can freeze defenders.
Foden almost had an all-time highlight-reel moment in the first leg of City’s semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain. The playmaker evaded agricultural challenges from Neymar and Danilo Pereira, and slalomed through pressure from Ander Herrera, Alessandro Florenzi, Presnel Kimpembe, and Marquinhos, before Keylor Navas gracefully collected a shot from the outside of Foden’s boot.
Once again, Giroud seems to be getting phased out at Chelsea. The French striker hasn’t started a match since the international break in March, and he should feel aggrieved at his lack of minutes given what he’s accomplished this campaign and Timo Werner’s luckless labor.
Of course, Giroud provided one of the moments of Chelsea’s run when he flung his body backward to plant an acrobatic effort into Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s net in the round of 16.
But that’s not all he’s done. After weathering some second-half pressure at Rennes in November, Giroud popped up with a 91st-minute winner in a match that secured the capital club’s progression to the knockout rounds.
And he bagged a four-goal haul against Sevilla in December to effectively secure Chelsea’s first-place finish in Group E.
Giroud’s dwindling first-team opportunities and expiring contract suggest the Champions League final is his last chance to play for the club. But don’t rule him out of having a say in Saturday’s proceedings. He’s got a knack for scoring timely goals, and he fought off Tammy Abraham, Michy Batshuayi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Alvaro Morata in the battle for a central striking role at Chelsea before his latest squabble with Werner.
There’s still a street-football playfulness to Mahrez’s game. He boasts tricks that were honed on the concrete five-a-side pitches in the Parisian suburbs, helping him squirm through a glut of bodies, and the balance that helped prevent him grazing his knees when he was a kid.
But Mahrez now has an added maturity to his game, elevating him to a crucial player in Guardiola’s XI and compensating for Raheem Sterling’s disappointing form. In fact, Mahrez’s individual improvements have him among Europe’s truly elite footballers.
One of Mahrez’s biggest upgrades has been his defensive work. With the exception of FC Porto’s Otavio and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Lars Stindl, Mahrez has completed the most tackles per 90 minutes by an attacking player who’s featured in more than five Champions League games. He’s a much tougher opponent than he’s given credit for.
However, his attacking qualities will always demand the most attention. He scored three goals over the two semifinal meetings with Paris Saint-Germain, plus he converted a penalty and had a shot blocked on the line in the Dortmund doubleheader.
His first touch alone is worth tuning in for.
Mendy’s route to the Champions League final must be the most inspiring of them all. Six years ago, the goalkeeper was into his 12th month without a club following his release by Cherbourg, a third-tier team in France; he was about to accept a job in a clothing store to help support his pregnant partner.
Then, through a friend of a friend, he was handed one last chance: a trial with Marseille. He did enough to earn a deal with the French giants and, after subsequent moves to Stade de Reims and Rennes, he’s now Chelsea’s undisputed No. 1.
The modest start to his career makes the ease in which Mendy has slotted in at Chelsea even more impressive. The goalkeeper position was a problem for the club, one passed between aging duo Petr Cech and Willy Caballero and the erratic Kepa Arrizabalaga in recent years, but Mendy logged six consecutive clean sheets in Premier League and Champions League play following his arrival.
His introduction was even punctuated by injury, but Mendy returned from a thigh issue to keep Sevilla at bay in the Blues’ group opener. That appearance included an excellent save when he clawed at a deflected Sevilla header, helping Mendy to the first of his eight clean sheets in the Champions League term.
Torres has been used sparingly over his first season in England. Since the Champions League knockout phase kicked off, the 21-year-old has only managed a brief cameo in the dying embers of City’s second leg against Monchengladbach in the round of 16.
But his contributions during the group stage were vital in ensuring a quick passage into the latter rounds while Guardiola dealt with a rash of injuries.
Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus were both struck with fitness concerns early in the season, and Guardiola was yet to construct his strikerless system, so Torres was called upon to lead City’s frontline in two matches. Rather than operate as a false nine, the Spaniard was a true No. 9 in the scuffles with Marseille and Olympiacos and scored in each match.
He also netted in City’s first group outing against FC Porto following some pretty link-up play with fellow youngster Foden.
Despite his inconsistent game time, it’s been a promising debut season for Torres at City: He’s racked up 13 goals and three assists despite starting just 24 matches across all competitions.