Hakim Ziyech is into his second consecutive Champions League quarter-final with Chelsea, having of course won the competition with us last season. To see the part ‘the Wizard’ has been playing in this run of European success, look no further than the five goals he has contributed to directly in his eight appearances.
Two of those have been assists with three goals scored – a winner at Malmo in this season’s group stage and in Krasnodar a year earlier, and in a memorable knockout game against Atletico Madrid at Stamford Bridge.
Ahead of tonight’s mouth-watering quarter-final first leg at home against Atletico’s big city rivals Real, Ziyech has been talking about Europe’s top club competition, with Chelsea of course currently the holders of the trophy, and about scoring goals, especially the type of counter-attacking or long-range strikes that have so caught the eye in his two seasons with us.
The full version of this interview (by Dominic Bliss) appears in the matchday programme for today’s game. Here, Ziyech begins by looking at the tie which is a repeat of last season’s semi-final.
‘It’s a totally different situation from last year, a different atmosphere, a different time,’ he says.
‘They’ve [Real Madrid] also improved as a squad, with some young players as well, so it’s a totally different game than last year.
‘We know how difficult it can be against Real Madrid. We played them in the semi-final last year and now we play them in the last eight, and there will be a crowd back. So the motivation will be different, the discipline should be different, but the most important thing is that you must enjoy it.
‘Those kind of games – if you don’t enjoy them, you’d better choose another sport because these are the games you dream of. It will be a hard game, a physical game, a mind game, but one to enjoy from the first minute to the last.’
That opening goal in the 2-0 win against Atletico Madrid last season was similar to other Ziyech goals for Chelsea, arriving at the back post to finish a sweeping move on the counter-attack.
‘They are satisfying,’ says the player. ‘You train all the time on those kinds of things in the days before a game. There are things you have in mind that you practise and if it works in a game, it’s brilliant – it gives verification that what you’re doing with the game plan is working. It gives you a bit more trust in what you’re doing, and you could see last year that the trust was building up and building up every single round. We have been doing the same this year, even in the group stage and the last-16 games – the belief and the trust is here to achieve again what we did last year.’
Ziyech speaks about those goals being as much about tactical awareness and fitness as they are about technique, because you can only apply the last touch if you are in a position to do so in the first place.
‘Yeah, you have to be there and I think it also shows what we’re asking of ourselves in the game. We have that belief that everything will fall in its place in one or two moments in the game. It’s the mission to make it work and to be there at the right moment.’
His goal against Palace fell into the same category, but it was also a late winner in a frustrating match. How good did that feel?
‘A release because I had scored one before but it was offside by a small piece. But the game continues and then it’s the case that you still believe in it. Last minute, it came again, and this time it was onside, the goal was good and we turned it into a win and took three points. That’s what I mean – we always believe in the work we do and believe in what we want to achieve.’
On being full of belief at the moment and being in good form, Ziyech believes he is getting better and better every game.
‘I’ve now been playing for a long period – okay, I had a small injury again but it didn’t put me off my form. I feel comfortable, I feel good, I feel happy and in that situation the football will come by itself.’
It is not only with counter-attacking goals that Ziyech has been effective. His long-range shooting is an enduring threat, most memorably when he broke Tottenham’s resistance in our league game at Stamford Bridge.
‘It’s about the moment of the game and when you think it’s best,’ he says of his shooting. ‘In training, you’re always shooting and practising it, improving it. I’m not saying it will always go in, because I’ve also had shots that have gone out of the stadium, or whatever! But I always say if you don’t shoot, you can’t score, so if I have the feeling I can shoot I just do it and don’t think too much behind it. Most of the time, especially here, it goes in!
‘It [the Spurs goal] was a derby so it brought a totally different vibe, or energy, with it, especially as it was for 1-0. I think maybe from the crowd it looks insane, but when you are in the game it doesn’t feel the same as when you’re in the crowd. Of course, it was a beautiful goal, and an important one, and you can feel the energy that goes around the stadium when a shot like that goes in.’
He agrees he is not generally a roaring, knee-sliding celebrator of goals.
‘It’s not really my biggest thing, maybe I’m not that type of guy who always shows it, but on the inside I’m happy because I’ve helped the team to open the game, and that’s the most important thing for me.’
Bringing it back to tonight’s game, after winning the Champions League last season, how important is it to retain it now?
‘We have to give it all for that,’ Ziyech declares. ‘You don’t win those kinds of trophies often, so we have it now and we are in the race for another one. We need to give everything we’ve got to defend it and make sure the cup stays in London.’