Paris Saint-Germain tried everything. They attempted to shoot through him from distance. They tried to dribble and pass around him. Once or twice, they even challenged him in the air. Ruben Dias, though, was the proverbial footballing wall as Manchester City tackled and blocked their way to a first ever Champions League final.
Of course, there was some trademark Pep Guardiola football in there too. The moves that produced both goals in the 2-0 semi-final second leg win on Tuesday night were City at their best, particularly the second goal which saw Kevin de Bruyne and Phil Foden combine to set up Riyad Mahrez for the finish at the back post.
But the most notable thing about City’s performance came at the other end of the pitch. PSG didn’t create much, but what they did was repelled by an opposition defence led by Dias. Nobody made more blocks than the Portuguese centre back who along with John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko threw himself at everything (City made nine blocks in total).
Ruben Dias vies with Neymar
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The Champions League knockout rounds haven’t been kind to Guardiola as City boss, but this display was in stark contrast to the lifeless offerings of past seasons. Lyon, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Monaco have all stopped the Catalan from achieving his ultimate objective at the club, but this was pre-Dias.
Signed for £65m from Benfica last summer, Dias has changed the landscape at the Etihad Stadium. Guardiola didn’t know what to do with his defence last season, playing a back three of Aymeric Laporte, Eric Garcia and Fernandinho in the shock defeat to Lyon in the Champions League quarter-finals. It was City’s biggest weakness.
Almost as soon as he arrived in England, Dias steadied City at the back. His impact at the Etihad Stadium can now be compared to Virgil van Dijk’s upon joining Liverpool. Just like the Dutchman, Dias has lifted the game of everyone around him, not least John Stones whose City career has been revived as the Portuguese’s centre back partner.
If Guardiola goes on to lift his third Champions League trophy, and his first as Manchester City manager, he will surely look at Dias as the biggest difference between this team and teams that have fallen before the final hurdle in years gone by. And if City win three titles this season (the Champions League, Premier League and Carabao Cup) Dias’ Ballon d’Or case will be just as strong as van Dijk’s was in 2019.
City’s reliance on Dias is exposed when the 23-year-old isn’t on the pitch for them – see the shock home defeat to Leeds United on April 10, when Nathan Ake and Stones failed to keep out mid-table opposition. Without Dias, Guardiola’s side are that bit more vulnerable, further underlining comparisons with van Dijk whose absence this season has shaken Liverpool.
Virgil van Dijk, Jurgen Klopp
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Dias embodies the other side of Guardiola’s ideology – the dirty side. It’s not all about intricate passing triangles and off-the-ball movement. In fact, without full commitment to the cause Guardiola’s brand of football is worth nothing. Dias has brought the sort of fight and spirit that was previously lacking at City. He is a Gerard Pique-esque figure.
Last summer’s signing of Dias was a sliding doors moment for Manchester City with the 23-year-old not even their top target at the time of the transfer window opening – bids for Sevilla’s Jules Kounde and RB Leipzig Dayot Upamecano were reportedly made before the focus shifted to Portugal.
No matter whether Chelsea or Real Madrid come through Wednesday’s other Champions League semi-final, City will be favourites to be crowned European kings later this month. There might not be anybody left to stop them, especially if Dias is on shot-blocking duty in Istanbul.