Riyad Mahrez scored two goals but this was a victory born of a defence superbly marshalled by Ruben Dias…
“This is the guy to replace Vincent Kompany, if you like. £65m, a huge figure again, but if this doesn’t work, I think it’s possibly the end of the Pep project,” said Jamie Carragher in September, joining a long list of pundits and fans who were clearly baffled and slightly underwhelmed by the signing of Ruben Dias, a 23-year-old from Benfica who most – if they were honest and ignorance was socially acceptable in 2020 – had barely seen play. This was not Kalidou Koulibaly or Jules Kounde or Dayot Upamecano; this was the largely unknown and unheralded Dias, who had never been past the group stage of the Champions League and never played outside Portugal.
Nobody hailed him as the man who would help Manchester City regain the Premier League title and reach the Champions League final for the first time; that would have seemed ludicrous. This did not feel like a marquee signing even though he came at a marquee price. If anything it seemed a little desperate, coming after the embarrassment of that 5-2 demolition by Leicester City. The fact that Benfica has suffered an early exit from the Champions League and Nicolas Otamendi shuffled in the opposite direction added to the suspicion that Dias was the best choice available rather than anybody’s first choice.
He would certainly be everybody’s first choice now. The Premier League signing of the season. One of the Premier League players of the season. The Champions League centre-half of the season. Every plaudit given to Virgil van Dijk as Liverpool dominated should now be handed to Dias, who has not just brought his own excellence but elevated the performances of every player around him. John Stones has defied logic with his renaissance; Dias has dragged him to brilliance and together they have turned a flawed Manchester City side into one nearing perfection.
Against PSG, Dias was nothing short of phenomenal. Like John Terry in his pomp, Dias blocked shots with his head, physically dragged teammates into position and was consistently in exactly the right place with exactly the right touch. To be a complete defender at 23 is as remarkable as Phil Foden being the complete attacking midfielder at 20. It’s just as precocious and just as precious to City in this season which threatens to be the greatest in the club’s history. He has replaced Vincent Kompany both as a defender and as a leader and his age means he could stay and potentially improve in that role for the next decade.
Ruben Dias is absurd. What a defender
— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) May 4, 2021
Would John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko have celebrated a moment of supreme and committed defending without the presence and influence of Dias, who has somehow made sliding and blocking cool at a club that usually only celebrates elegance. This victory over PSG contained flashes of the latter from Foden, Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne, but this was triumph born from true grit – from Fernandinho, from Kyle Walker, from Stones, but largely from Dias.
Erling Haaland and now Neymar have been comprehensively shackled by this City defence. Just as Pep Guardiola stopped overthinking the latter stages of the Champions League, his players stopped overplaying. Against PSG, they were happy to be disciplined in defence and incisive on the counter-attack, doing to PSG what so many teams have tried and largely failed to do to City over the last four years. They enter the Champions League final having conceded just four goals in 12 games. The vulnerable underachievers are now made of pure steel and the man with the welding iron is Dias.
The end of the Pep project? We are close to its zenith.