Ruben Dias interview: Manchester City star on the Champions League final, playing like he's a kid again, and the power of Pep Guardiola

City's record signing talks exclusively about the absence of nerves in the build-up to the showpiece with Chelsea in his home country

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Even having just turned 24, even when yet to complete his first full season at Manchester City and even with a debut in club football’s showpiece event to come this weekend, Ruben Dias appears unperturbed.

Not that you would expect anything different. Dias joined City in September as their record signing and made so seamless the transition that he was crowned not only Premier League champion, but the club's player of the season and the Football Writers' Association men's Footballer of the Year.

Still, now he competes for arguably the greatest club prize of all. On Saturday, City face Chelsea in the Champions League final, an all-England encounter that plays out in Dias’ native Portugal. The European Cup remains the one elusive title for City and a pressing ambition throughout their 13 years of Abu Dhabi ownership.

So, nerves would be understandable. Expected almost. As it turns out, not necessarily.

"On this one, I will speak for my team," Dias tells The National from the club's Manchester base. "Because not just me, but I believe everyone else in this team will have the power and will have the right mentality to go on and to perform on the pitch. Because you've been playing all season to get here.

“Now it’s all about enjoying it and doing everything you can to win it. And, for that, just play football. Like you used to play when you were a young kid, in the street, with your boys. That’s the true essence of football. So, it’s about enjoying, and obviously a huge will to win.”

Dias’s drive and determination have been obvious since his arrival from Benfica, eight months ago, for a reported £65 million ($92m). Soon, he formed part of the meanest defence in England’s lead division.

Clearly, his footballing education has been formidable. Having come through the ranks at Benfica, Dias was a Portuguese league champion in his second season with the first team. His all-round education is strong, too. He speaks authoritatively in fluent English. Unsurprisingly, manager Pep Guardiola has earmarked Dias as a future club captain.

He enjoyed lifting the Premier League trophy at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday after City secured the title with three games to spare. The celebrations, though, were short-lived.

Refocusing has been easy, Dias claims, given what’s yet to come. “Obviously, it’s a special meaning when you win the Premier League,” he says. “But after that the mentality to prepare for the next one is the same. After all the success in the world, just come back to earth and keep doing the same.”

The magnitude of Saturday's task makes it a clear choice. “I’ll be honest with you, I think I know very well what the Champions League means for the club, especially since it’s their first final,” Dias says.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27: Ruben Dias of Manchester City scores his team's first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham United at Etihad Stadium on February 27, 2021 in Manchester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Ruben Dias scores his team's first goal during the Premier League match against West Ham at Etihad Stadium in February. Getty

“Because it’s my first final as well. And not just me, many others. So, we’re on the same page. The will to win it, it’s just massive.

“What I can say is that we want it very much. But we are conscious that it will be difficult, and we have a tough opponent in front of us. So, we will need to be at our very best to meet them.”

Dias doesn't dodge a question just as much as he doesn't shirk responsibility on the pitch or shy away from a challenge. He acknowledges that the recent defeats to Chelsea, both within the past five weeks, one in the FA Cup semi-final and the other in the league, serve as extra motivation. City, he says, recognise how good they must be to prevail against Thomas Tuchel's team.

“Everybody does,” Dias says. “The biggest benefit we might take from [the losses] is knowing that we’re playing against a very good opponent, a very tough opponent. They have their qualities, we have ours. But, at the end, who wants it the most will win it.

“And we need to be very strong in whatever we do. We need to be ourselves, we need to have the same passion we’re having since the beginning. And we’ll see. But we really want to do it.”

Who are the key players in the 2021 Champions League final?

Who are the key players in the 2021 Champions League final?

Dias not only references the team’s spirit and mental fortitude as the secret to City’s run to the final, he embodies it. That common courage was evident, he highlights, during the setbacks in the quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund or the first leg of the last four against Paris Saint-Germain. In both instances, City rebounded from a goal down to triumph.

“The major thing that actually made a big difference was the way everybody understood how the collective would make the individuals come up,” Dias says. “You can do it the other way round: go for the individuals trying to get the collective to the end. But from the start we did it the other way: we went for the collective first and in the end the individualities they came and put us where we are.”

Those individual talents are almost too numerous to name, such has been the investment in City. It extends from goalkeeper Ederson through to Dias and his cohorts in defence, to the likes of Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan – the only member of the squad to have played in a Champions League final – Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and the precocious Phil Foden.

City's title celebrations

It’s another reason that, when Dias looks around the dressing room before Saturday's kick-off at the Estadio do Dragao, he envisions a calm underpinned by the confidence to deliver.

“Obviously that’s one of our biggest strong points,” he says. “Because we’ve got the individualities. Every single one; you just count them. But what we understood since the beginning is that together we’re so much stronger.

"If we’re together, if everyone just gives his life for the guy next to him, we’ll be so close. That’s what happened and now we’re in the last step and we want to go through.”

He points out also that, while the club experience a first Champions League final, in Guardiola City have someone who has been there and, perhaps crucially, tasted success. The Spaniard won the European Cup as a player with Barcelona and then twice as their manager, even though the crown has evaded him outside his boyhood club.

"We have all the pressure in the world every single game we play, because at the end of it all we know what we're playing for: to reach the finals and to win the cups"

“It’s very special to have him as coach, and very important for all of us – in different points of view,” Dias says. “But obviously when it comes to this, he has won it already and that gives us confidence as well.

“We all know, and especially the guys who have been here for long, everyone has been winning since they came. All of that brings something special to the team. And Pep is a huge part of that.”

That the final takes place in Portugal – it was shifted from Istanbul to Porto to allow English-based fans to attend amid ongoing restrictions during the pandemic – provides an extra source of motivation for Dias. He jokes that it simply means having to source a few additional tickets, and that he hopes the weather in Porto will be more appealing than the grey Manchester day over his shoulder.

“The most important [thing] is that we win … and I can celebrate at home,” he says.

Reluctant to tempt fate, Dias has not pictured holding aloft the trophy. Instead, he prefers visualising, as he always does, the “small aspects” that he feels will give an edge during the game.

He is cognisant that fine margins, particularly at the pinnacle of elite-level sport, often determine the outcome. Preparation can negate pressure, even for someone so young, even for someone about to debut in club football’s showpiece event.

“Obviously the pressure around the Champions League final is always special, is always different,” Dias says. “But if you look at it, we have all the pressure in the world every single game we play, because at the end of it all we know what we’re playing for: to reach the finals and to win the cups. So, it’s just a continuation of all of that. And now we’re one game away, so we’ll just need to be at our very best.

“The most key thing will be for us to be able to, in all of the big storm that is the Champions League, be ourselves, to play the way we’ve been playing so far and to have the same ambition we’ve been having. Because that was what got us here. That is what will bring us the Champions League.”