Ruben Dias’ club season started with a Champions League defeat for Benfica and could end with Manchester City becoming champions of Europe. His first league appearance was against Famalicao, but he went on to become the first defender voted England’s Footballer of the Year since the 1980s. It could be a transformative affair, for him and City alike.
He has played 62 games for clubs and country but insisted: “We couldn’t be more fresh. We’re fresh because we want it so much. To finish the season with the Champions League, it’s a dream for everyone.”
For him, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo, City’s three Portugal internationals, the fact the final is in their homeland gives it still added resonance. “A special meaning,” Dias said.
City’s Champions League campaign began with a 3-1 win over Porto. A month earlier, Dias had appeared for Benfica in the qualifying rounds, losing 2-1 to PAOK Salonika. It remains the only European defeat any member of Pep Guardiola’s team has played in this season.
If Dias’ fortunes have improved since then, he harked back to a more recent time when his side was trailing as he pinpointed an outstanding memory from City’s progress to Portugal. The semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain began inauspiciously.
“One of the moments that made me click was when we were 1-0 down at half-time in Paris,” he said. “In the second half, we turned it around and won 2-1. And then, we went into the dressing room and you saw everybody happy, but you didn’t see anybody [who was] too happy. You saw everybody focused.”
City's 2-0 second-leg victory against Mauricio Pochettino's team imbued him with confidence. "We were playing against one of the toughest opponents in the world: special players, a special team," he said. "And to be able to beat them, it says a lot about us and, at the same time, it says we're ready to take on the final."
The final brings a reunion with Chelsea, a fourth meeting of 2021 already. “We know each other very well because we’ve now played three times this season, and obviously, all of that affects how we’ll play,” said Dias.
He has played in all three but, perhaps crucially, he and John Stones were only paired in City’s lone win, January’s 3-1 triumph. Chelsea’s two wins came in games Stones did not play.
“It's true they beat us two times in the last month: one in the FA Cup and one in the Premier League,” said Dias’ compatriot Cancelo. “We need to be true to ourselves, keep our identity, who we are as a team.”
If the centre-back was an immediate success in Manchester, the full-back took longer to become a catalyst. His debut season in England was underwhelming. He has been a revelation now in a different role, coming into midfield to act as a playmaker when City have the ball.
“Pep Guardiola has revolutionised football,” Cancelo said. “He is always ahead of the game. I wasn't used to playing inside, but today I feel I'm a more versatile player, I can do more things on the pitch. I try to do what the manager says the best way I can.”
Cancelo is a symbolic success in a side who found a way to win without a prolific forward starting. “That is our secret: we are very strong as a team,” Cancelo said. “We don't have a superstar that scores lots of goals, but we have a great squad with great players. We can wrap up an incredible season if we win the Champions League, after we have already won the Carabao Cup and the Premier League. It can be an unforgettable season.”