HAKIM ZIYECH has struggled to make an impact since his big-money move from Ajax last year, but the Moroccan repaid Thomas Tuchel's faith by scoring the only goal of the game to sink Manchester City and send Chelsea into the FA Cup final.
Ziyech arrived with a big reputation but has not always lived up to his star billing, so it was a rare start that Tuchel gave him at Wembley on Saturday evening and he made the most of it.
Ziyech struck ten minutes into the second half to send Chelsea through, after having an earlier effort ruled out for offside, and was then denied a second goal by City's stand-in keeper Zack Steffen.
Afterwards a delighted Tuchel paid tribute to the Moroccan's persistence. “I'm very happy and proud of our performance. We deserved to win against the best manager and one of the best teams,” said Tuchel.
“Hakim was very strong against Liverpool and Atletico in the Champions League, but sometimes we have had a different approach with more runners, while he is more a dribbler, a passer a guy who turns in the pockets.
“Decisions are never personal, sometimes it is the players' characteristics. He showed me he is ready when he has come off the bench, and from what I saw in training. That is the most important thing.
“Now come the crucial weeks and nobody can rest on what we have done. We have to keep on going, everybody who is on the pitch needs to deserve to be there, and when you are on the pitch you must play your part, your role 100 per cent, show that you are reliable. This is what Hakim did, it is what Timo (Werner) did and what Kepa (Arrizabalaga) did today and I am very happy for them.”
Ziyech's goal was a rare moment of clinical finishing in a game of few clear-cut chances. Pep Guardiola made eight changes from the City side that beat Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday to reach the Champions League sem-finals, and paid the price for fielding what was almost a second-string side.
City struggled to get going, and then, when Kevin De Bruyne had started to control the game from midfield, the Belgian injured his ankle. It left City short on creativity and at the same time they were woeful in attack, with Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus particularly ineffective. They barely troubled Chelsea's reserve keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, but Guardiola angrily denied he had shown no respect to the competition by rotating his squad so much.
“Don't say we did not pay attention (to the competition), just say we lost the game. We had two and a half days to recover, a long journey back, and everyone deserved to play.
“This team arrived in the final stages of four competitions, won four Carabao Cup finals in a row. We did not get there by not paying attention. We always try to win these games. It was a tight game, congratulations to Chelsea, they are a top side in the years since Roman Abramovich took over. You saw the number of new players that arrived this season, so this can happen.
“But if you believe we don't pay attention to that, what would you say if the result today had been completely different and we had won?”
Guardiola admitted it has been his hardest season ever with the demands of challenging for a quadruple, that has now gone. “For the past 10 or 11 months these guys have been fighting to win every game like nothing I have ever seen before. So now we lose a game against a top side, they say we don't care about this competition. We respect the FA Cup and we came here to win.
“Do you think Sterling, Gabriel or Ferran did not deserve to play in this game?”
He added De Bruyne's ankle injury will be assessed on Sunday. “He is in pain now, and the doctor will do a test on Sunday morning. It doesn't look good. We'll see.”
It was soon after De Bruyne's departure that Mason Mount started the move that led to the game's only goal, putting Timo Werner away down the left. The German sprinted forward into City's penalty area before squaring a pass for Ziyech to shoot into the net. The Moroccan had already had a similar goal chalked off when Werner ran from an offside position in the first half, and was then denied by a good save from stand-in keeper Zack Steffen after a bad error from Ruben Dias.
City rarely looked like scoring, and will need to improve if they are to beat Tottenham at the same venue next weekend in the Carabao Cup final.
Chelsea will also be back for a Wembley cup final, are also in the Champions League semi-finals and fighting for a top four finish. Tuchel admitted City are the team they aspire to match.
“If you play against Pep you know you play at the highest level in Europe, because he has been on the sidelines with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City. For years he was the benchmark with his teams and he is doing it again in the Premier League.
“Our target was to close the gap for 90 minutes and we did that. It is important for our progression and development because we are a young team with young players. They are very tired now, and can enjoy it today but then it is in the past.”
And Tuchel says he does not look too far into the future. “All through my career as a manager I say don't start thinking too far ahead, don't put the stakes too high, don't look at the goals which are in the future.
“If you want to reach objectives, if you want to climb a mountain, you better start going because just thinking about the top does not get you there. You need to walk. Every journey starts with the first step. Don't get confused by thinking too much, take it step by step.
“The target was to get close to Manchester City for 90 minutes and we focussed on it and delivered very well. Now we go on to the next one.”
: Arrizabalaga 7; Azpilicueta 6, Thiago Silva 7 (Zouma 86), Rudiger 7; James 7, Jorginho 7, Kante 9, Chilwell 7; Ziyech 8 (Emerson 78), Werner 6 (Havertz 78), Mount 8 (Pulisic 70) 79), Mount (Pulisic 70), Werner (Havertz 79).
Alonso, Caballero, Giroud, Hudson-Odoi, Gilmour.
Steffen 7; Cancelo 6, Dias 6, Laporte 6, Mendy 6; De Bruyne 7 (Foden 48), Fernandinho 6, Rodrigo 6; Torres 5 (Gundogan 64), Jesus 6, Sterling 5.
: Walker, Stones, Ake, Zinchenko, Bernardo Silva, Mahrez, Ederson.
Mike Dean (Wirral).