Saul Niguez delivers best display against Tottenham as Chelsea fringe stake claim in Carabao Cup semi-final

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  • Chelsea
    Chelsea
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  • Romelu Lukaku
    Romelu Lukaku
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  • Saúl Ñíguez
    Saúl Ñíguez
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 (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
(Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

If Romelu Lukaku has got the hump about being in and out of the Chelsea side since his summer arrival, then he ought to spare a thought for Saul Niguez.

Thanks largely to his own dreadful form, the midfielder has made just 12 appearances all season, only seven of them from the start, a third of them in the Carabao Cup and many of them weeks apart from the next.

Against Tottenham last night, however, while Lukaku was taking the first baby steps towards repairing his recently fractured relationship with the club’s fans in the form of a trying but fairly average display, Saul was producing his best performance in a Blues shirt and perhaps the first to suggest there might be a point to his season-long loan from Atletico Madrid.

Stepping into midfield in place of N’Golo Kante who, Thomas Tuchel said, would have started had it not been for a late positive Covid test, and following Mateo Kovacic’s virtuoso performance against Liverpool, the stage seemed set for another underwhelming display to once again highlight the gulf between the cream of the Chelsea midfield crop and their understudies.

Instead, the 27-year-old was a standout performer, all-action, as typified by one crunching challenge on Heung-min Son, and clever in his ball retention as the hosts effectively penned Spurs in their own half for the opening 45 minutes, by which point they had scored both goals in the 2-0 win that leaves them on the brink of Wembley.

Kovacic, Kante and Jorginho remain a cut above, but if Saul can turn a good night into a run of good form, then he looks, technically and tactically, a more suitable replacement than either Ross Barkley or Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

“He is more happy, more free in training, I see it every day,” Tuchel said afterwards.

“I was so happy when I saw him on the sideline [celebrating] for the second goal in the draw with Liverpool, he was totally committed and it was very impressive to see him like this.

“It is an important moment for him and I have the feeling he digested the experiences in the beginning, where maybe he didn’t expect it like this. He is not the first player to struggle from the switch. What he does is good, because he is open and fully focused, totally committed to the team.

Does Saul Niguez have a future at Chelsea after all? (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Does Saul Niguez have a future at Chelsea after all? (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

“So, I am very happy with his performance. Today was a huge step for him.”

The Spaniard was not alone in emerging from the fringes. Hakim Ziyech, who has played more often than his form has merited, was superb, creating one goal and setting up golden chances for Lukaku and Timo Werner to kill off the tie. Malang Sarr, making only his sixth appearance of the season, was excellent, too, in a rejigged defence.

“We decided yesterday at the last minute to switch to a back four and the guys were very committed, open and focused to play how we played,” Tuchel added, having been forced into a rethink following Thiago Silva’s positive Covid test.

“It was good and it was not always fair to demand performances out of nothing like from Hakim, Saul and Malang. All three were outstanding.”

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