The Blues defender talks about three finals, two in the past and today’s meeting between Chelsea and Manchester City at Wembley…
Despite the unseasonably warm late February temperatures in London this week, it is unlikely Wembley’s weather later today will match that of 19 May last year, but we can certainly hope for a repeat of the result that day, a win for Chelsea in our most recent final when we lifted the FA Cup, albeit against the other side from Manchester than the one the Blues face this afternoon.
That 1-0 victory over United is a day to cherish for Toni Rudiger especially. He won his first club honour, he was part of a defence which kept a clean sheet and he was named man of the match.
‘It was fantastic,’ Rudiger tells the official Chelsea website as he prepares to return to Wembley for this season’s Carabao Cup showpiece.
‘The atmosphere was very good and it was the first time to experience a cup final in England, in my first season here.’
He admits to not having previously realised just what a big occasion the FA Cup final is in England. In his native Germany and then when he was playing in Italy, he did not read or hear much coverage of it, in the same way he points out people where he now lives do not discuss the German Cup. By the end of last May’s game the 25-year-old certainly appreciated the significance.
One of the outstanding moments was just before half-time, with Chelsea leading thanks to Eden Hazard’s penalty. Man United striker Marcus Rashford was going through on goal when a superbly executed Rudiger tackle snuffed out the danger. ‘Rudi, Rudi’ chorused the Blues support.
‘That chant not only started that match,’ he recalls. ‘It was also earlier in the season that they would shout my name but yeah, especially in that situation it happened as Rashford was about to score and I tried to put my whole body on the line.’
In the second half, Chelsea allowed our opponents to play in our half but a disciplined and strong defensive performance kept them at bay. It is no wonder Rudiger celebrated so well after the game. His dressing room dance was seen by many.
‘This was the type of final everyone expected. The first team to score was probably going to win the match and we sat back and waited to do counter-attacks, and we defended very well. It could have gone either way, they could have scored the first goal and then they would sit back and we would have more possession.
‘I was happy at the end because it was a difficult season and it was a trophy. We wanted a trophy and if you don’t celebrate then something is wrong!’
The FA Cup was not Rudiger’s first club final. Back in Germany in 2013 he played for Stuttgart in the German Cup final and lost out to Bayern Munich 3-2.
‘Bayern led 3-0 and they slowed down everything because they still had the Champions League final to play at that time and they made some changes,’ Rudiger remembers.
‘From that we took a little advantage and we had a chance to make it 3-3. But at the time I was 20 years old and for me it was something nice because of all the ceremony before the game. It was also in my home town of Berlin and it was a nice experience. The German Cup final definitely feels a big occasion with the ceremony and everything, and we played in the capital city. It is the same as if you play here in London, at Wembley, it is something people look up to.
‘I always hoped to play another cup final or play for trophies, and it worked here at Chelsea.’
Today he has another opportunity, with a fixture that has already become a big story this season. We started by playing against Manchester City in the Community Shield game and then beat them at Stamford Bridge in December before the shock of the 6-0 earlier this month. Now for meeting number four.
‘First of all it is a final, a trophy is on the line,’ Rudiger says. ‘In the league the other week people were not thinking that we would get beaten 6-0, and this is something we need to be careful of because that kills reputations. In this final we have to put a different performance than in the last game against City. We have to go with the right approach in this match.’
Up at the Etihad, Rudiger felt the need to go to the travelling Chelsea fans after the game.
‘It is not that I do this every game because I am not that type of person, I don’t need to say sorry myself because we lost a game,’ he points out. ‘But in that match I had the feeling yes, you have to do it and I went over. Everything was good. What was in the newspapers, you always have one person who thinks he has to say something, but that is okay, you take it and that is it.’
Today while the fans will be looking at Rudiger and his colleagues at the back to repeat the fortitude of the defending in last season’s FA Cup final and in our home 2-0 win over Man City this season, it is likely to be Gonzalo Higuain who will be leading the attack. The Argentinian who joined on loan last month is a striker Rudiger knows well, having come directly up against him during their Serie A days.
‘Everyone knows Gonzalo is a goalscorer,’ Rudiger says. ‘You have to adapt to things but he played in Spain and he played in Italy and he has always mainly played for big clubs and he knows the pressure. Of course at the moment it is difficult for him because the team has been struggling but still he is for me a quality striker and if he gets the chance and he gets the service, he will be great for us.’
Big players have the chance today to play on a big cup final stage. Here’s to one of those representing Chelsea walking off with the man of the match award again.