For Antonio Rüdiger, today is another day, the time to get back in the saddle, to build up towards Chelsea’s next big game – the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace at Wembley on Sunday. There is no point in being sad any more. The steeliness of his professionalism will, as usual, kick in.
But it is probably fair to describe Wednesday as a lost day for Rüdiger, when the pain and frustration of what had happened in Madrid on Tuesday night gnawed away, tormenting him.
Few players take defeat as hard as Rüdiger and one of the most vivid snapshots of Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final exit against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu came after the full-time whistle.
As Real celebrated their 5-4 aggregate passage, despite a 3-2 defeat on the night, Rüdiger lay prone. The Real defender David Alaba helped him to his feet but Rüdiger appeared oblivious, locked instead in an internal argument, heavy on violent movements and exhortations to the sky. Then, he sank back down to the ground, head in hands, seemingly wanting to curl up into a ball.
Rüdiger had been emotional throughout. Perhaps, with his future uncertain – out of contract in June and with no immediate prospect of an extension as Chelsea remain between owners – he sensed a kind of swan-song, the final stretch at a club where he is adored by the support. More likely, though, this was just Rüdiger, the heart-on-sleeve competitor.
The central defender had scored for 2-0 on the night, powering home a 51st-minute header from Mason Mount’s corner and, in stoppage time at the end of the 90 minutes – the tie level at 4-4 – it was his header that teed up the substitute Christian Pulisic for a chance to win it, which he really should have taken.
Rüdiger’s best defensive moment had come in the 68th minute when he stretched to intercept a Toni Kroos pass that was intended for Vinícius Júnior after N’Golo Kanté had given the ball away in central midfield. Rüdiger leapt to his feet and, eyes popping with fury, he made Kanté perfectly aware of how he felt. For Rüdiger, it is about standards and focus.
Which is why he would have been so disappointed at himself for Real’s extra-time winner, headed in by Karim Benzema. When Vinícius crossed from the left, Rüdiger did not appear to notice Benzema dropping off, buying the crucial space and, when he turned round, it was too late. To compound Rüdiger’s agony and the impression of helplessness, he slipped as he did so.
What was noticeable when Rüdiger faced the TV cameras after the match was his realism. Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea manager, had lamented the “two crucial ball losses” before each of the Real goals. Kanté saw a pass upfield cut out before the first and Thiago Silva misplaced a ball towards Kanté on the second. But Tuchel also muttered darkly about the influence of the Bernabéu crowd on referees.
Rüdiger looked solely at Chelsea’s shortcomings and they included his own. “Over the two legs, if you make the kind of mistakes like we did, you get punished,” he said.
It is how Rüdiger has long operated. No excuses, only home truths. He analyses his own game first and he is not the sort of player to demand reassurances from his inner circle; yes men to tell him how wonderful he is. On the contrary. One of the biggest influences on his career is his half-brother and agent, Sahr Senesie, who played professionally himself. Senesie will tell him the unvarnished truth and Rüdiger will listen.
Rüdiger will use the Madrid heartbreak as fuel and, like everybody at the club, he knows that the Palace tie has the potential to make or break the season. Chelsea are geared to reach finals, to win trophies, and the FA Cup is all they have left. They have to build on the many positives of the performance at the Bernabéu.
Rüdiger has gone from outcast under Frank Lampard to talismanic mainstay under Tuchel but, as things stand, he is more likely to leave the club in the summer than stay. Then again, what better opening move could the new owners make than to secure him to a new contract? The clock is ticking loudly. Rüdiger’s eyes are on Palace.