Football these days doesn’t quite feel like football used to before the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced to a much more overtly soulless business exercise (like many other professional sports around the world), but sometimes, the inherent drama of the game and its competitions still manage to triumph. Case in point, last night’s 3-2 win for Juventus against Porto in extra-time, which still wasn’t enough for Juan Cuadrado & Co to progress as the visitors would go through to the Champions League quarterfinals on away goals in the 4-4 aggregate scoreline.
One of the reasons for Porto’s success was the play of Chelsea loanee Malang Sarr, who was called upon to help salvage the situation after Porto were reduced to ten men just before the hour-mark, with the match level at 1-1 at the time and Porto still ahead 3-2 on aggregate. While Juve would find a second goal to take the game into extra-time, Sarr did well in his makeshift left back role and even tested the goalkeeper with a powerful strike.
The performance continued the pattern of Sarr’s time in Portugal, which has been rather mixed overall. He’s hardly featured in the league, and to less than positive reviews and headlines in general, but he’s had several key performances in their Champions League run, starting 4 of the 8 games so far, which is just one fewer than the number of starts he’s received in the Primeira Liga all season.
None of Porto’s three Premier League loanees have managed to consistently impress — in addition to Sarr, they’ve had Marko Grujic in from Liverpool while Felipe Anderson joined in January from West Ham — but Sarr’s glimpses of quality give hope of a better future. He is just 22 after all, and looking to kickstart his career after his progress stalled a bit at OGC Nice.
Sarr joined Chelsea for free last summer, one of a trio of free-agent center backs alongside Thiago Silva and Xavier Mbuyamba — with Silva almost as old as the other two put together! — as Chelsea put into motion a longer-term plan of rebuilding the defense. During Frank Lampard’s 18 months, that looked very much a high-priority item on the to-do list, but the early returns under Tuchel have been much, much better. And that could mean that instead of having to spend big on options that no longer include Dayot Upamecano, perhaps we can find an internal solution, be that the highly rated Mbuyamba, the once highly-rated Sarr, or any one of the number of excellent homegrown options, such as Marc Guehi or Ethan Ampadu for example.
(EDIT: sure, Fikayo Tomori, too, though I fear he’s not coming back anytime soon.)