Toni Rudiger’s first 90 minutes of competitive football for eight months was warmly welcomed by all inside a blustery Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night as the German defender returned to the side to help us into the Champions League last-16.
Our Europa League quarter-final in Prague back in April was the last time Rudiger had completed a full game as first a knee injury and then a pelvic problem ruled him out of the European final against Arsenal as well as the first few months of Frank Lampard’s reign as Chelsea boss.
After coming through unscathed against Lille, Rudiger expressed his gratitude to those who have helped him through a difficult period and detailed the work that has been going on behind the scenes at Cobham to improve his match fitness.
‘It feels good,’ he reported in the aftermath of the 2-1 victory. ‘It’s been a long time but I’m very happy that everything went well and we’re into the last-16.
‘I have to say thank you to everyone – the backroom staff, the coaches and the fans for their patience. This is not the first time I’ve been injured for a long time and you just have to be patient, listen to the doctor and wait for your time.
‘I had a little pre-season,’ Rudiger explained about his work over the past few weeks. ‘I really thank Frank for that because it was a good idea and now I just feel it in my legs but not so much in my heart! It makes a difference after a long-term injury because you need games to come back into it.’
The 26-year-old had been nursed back from the knee injury that prematurely ended his 2018/19 season before another issue flared up away at Wolves in September as he bothered a pre-existing groin problem when travelling off the pitch by the dugouts.
‘It was not just the slip,’ he said. ‘I was feeling it in the game already and the slip was the point where I said I cannot go on anymore.
‘It was an ongoing thing after my knee injury and I took it with me for a long time before we found out I had a problem with the hernia. That’s why everything took so long but I am here now.’
Back in the heart of the Chelsea defence against Lille, Rudiger lined up alongside Kurt Zouma and he claimed their partnership was quickly established with constant dialogue throughout the game.
‘For me, it’s just a matter of communication,’ he said. ‘If you don’t speak then things will be a bit difficult but me and him spoke directly and the commanding was clear so it was easier for everyone. If you speak and give each other confidence then it’s much easier.
‘In my position, it’s very important to be loud and to speak because I have the whole pitch in front of me. This has always been natural for me and even when I was younger I was commanding.’
As the most experienced of our centre-back options in the current squad, Rudiger is also keen to help those in the group adjust to the pressures and demands of representing Chelsea week-in, week-out, something the defender himself has done well since his move from Italy in the summer of 2017.
‘I see myself as helping them like always, like I did in the other years in the team when I played with David Luiz or Gary Cahill,’ he added.
‘I’m loud on the pitch and especially with the younger guys we need to always help them. There will be a period where the performances will go down and that’s normal because we are all human but that is the time for me, as the most experienced at the back, to help those young guys.’
At this busy time of the football season, congratulations are brief and work now begins on preparing for the visit of Bournemouth in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon. Whether Rudiger will be tasked with two games in five days after such a long spell on the sidelines remains to be seen but he remains clear that he’s ready to perform.
‘I have to be honest with the coach to tell him whether or not I feel alright but if he needs me, of course I will do it every time,’ Rudiger stressed.
‘We have to take every game step by step now – we’re in the top four, into the next round of the Champions League but we need to be aware of performances like Everton and West Ham as well.’
Over on The 5th Stand, Toni Rudiger reveals his first footballing hero. Have you downloaded the official Chelsea app yet?