A few short weeks ago the main connection between Chelsea and Rennes was Petr Cech, but today we will play the Ligue 1 side for the very first time and in our goal will be Edouard Mendy, the Senegalese keeper who represented The Red and Blacks last season.
Mendy made a considerable impression in the north-west of France, having joined from Reims. Thirteen clean sheets in 31 appearances in the curtailed 2019/20 campaign helped Rennes secure a third-place finish and, for the first time in their history, Champions League football. Perhaps it was inevitable they would be drawn in the same group as the team Mendy transferred to at the end of September.
‘As we said goodbye to each other,’ recounted Rennes head coach Julien Stephan, ‘we thought we would meet again very soon in the group stage of the Champions League. It’s a wish that has been granted.’
Stephan, the son of Didier Deschamps’ assistant with the French national team, Guy, coached in Rennes’ academy before taking the top job late in 2018. In his early months in charge, he masterminded qualification to the knockout rounds of a European competition for the first time in the club’s history, and defeated Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final. It was their first trophy in almost half-a-century.
Stephan signed Mendy ahead of the next season and, such was the esteem he held the keeper in, he had made him vice-captain before his switch to Stamford Bridge.
‘Despite my disappointment at losing a great goalkeeper and a great man, I am delighted for him at getting this opportunity,’ said Stephan when Mendy departed.
‘He has been rewarded for the effort he has put in throughout his career. He has had a unique journey. It has always relied on very strong values, respect, work and righteousness. He is rewarded for all the efforts he has made in his career.
‘He has the opportunity to go to a big club. It's bound to be progression for him. This is a higher step. We wish him the best and the greatest success in this project.’
At his press conference yesterday, Mendy’s new manager Frank Lampard complimented the goalkeeper’s quality and work ethic when asked about his quick adaption to English football. Much of what he said chimed with Stephan’s verdict.
‘I am pleased he is playing his old team, it’s a nice story,’ added Lampard.
Another Frank, our former defender Leboeuf, is a regular pundit on French television, and he recently added his name to the list of those impressed by Mendy’s progress during what has been, by all accounts, an unusual career path.
Mendy himself revealed he had been due to join a League One club in England six years ago before the move collapsed, and he then spent a period out of the game. Now he is playing elite European football.
‘Thanks to Rennes for selling him to us!’ Leboeuf laughed. ‘He has made a huge impact. I have followed the guy when he was in Reims and then last season in Rennes, he’s an absolutely fantastic player, and if he’s not the top signing of the new season he’s a huge signing for Chelsea for sure.’
Incidentally, Mendy's opposite number tonight will be his fellow Senegal international Alfred Gomis, who Rennes bought from Dijon to replace their outgoing no.16.
At the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Gomis benefited from an injury to Mendy before Senegal’s third group stage game against Kenya to take the gloves on their run to the final.
‘I talked a bit with Edou before signing for Rennes,’ Gomis revealed.
‘He's a really good guy. He told me there was a great locker room, that we worked hard during the week and that we had a lot of fun on the weekends.’
Gomis and Rennes have found clean sheets hard to come by this season – in contrast to Mendy – but it was only the heroics of Gomis that prevented Sevilla winning much more comfortably on matchday two.
Mendy meanwhile is one of only two keepers to have kept two clean sheets out of two in the Champions League this season, and it is a run he will be hoping to improve on against what he described as ‘a magnificent club with incredible people’ upon leaving in September.
Edouard Mendy is the cover star for tonight's programme, which you can buy here