There is an argument that Renato Sanches had the worst game of his professional career at Stamford Bridge when he was donning the colours of Swansea City — but he banished the ghosts of that infamous performance this evening.
When Swansea City pulled off the signing of Sanches on a season-long loan from Bayern Munich in 2017, with then manager Paul Clement using his ties with Carlo Ancelotti to secure the 2016 Golden Boy, it looked like they had just performed one of the great Premier League transfers.
Of course, we now know Sanches struggled to acclimatise to the rigorous demands of top-flight English football, with the nadir of his time in South Wales coming in a game at Stamford Bridge in which he mistook an advertising hoarding for one of his team-mates — and was ultimately hooked at half-time.
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Sanches never really recovered from that notoriously, almost comedic showing at the Liberty Stadium, as the Swans suffered relegation and he returned to Bavaria at the end of the season — and fans on these shores have certainly not forgotten about that pass, adding a glorious sub-plot this first leg.
However, like any mundanely-clichéd Hollywood redemption arc, Sanches put paid to that showing from half a decade ago, leaving jaws agape on the Stamford Bridge terraces, not because fans were stunned that a Premier League footballer mistook a human being for a logo of a water buffalo, but because he was simply dazzling with the ball at his feet.
“Sanches has been dangerous, he drives with the ball really well,” Chelsea icon Joe Cole mentioned at half-time in the BT Sport studio.
Lille were slowly sleepwalking to a Chelsea rout in the opening exchanges as the reigning European champions ramped up the pressure and swarmed forward like a pack of wolves rabbit-hunting, but the visiting side grew into the game, with Sanches the catalyst in a brief shift in momentum in the first half.
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Unfortunately that momentum was not sustained after the break as Chelsea doubled their advantage, with Christian Pulisic making it 2-0 after Kai Havertz broke the deadlock in the first 10 minutes — but Sanches continued to press and probe as Lille’s only major threat.
In truth, the French champions scarcely troubled Edouard Mendy between the sticks, lacking the attacking edge of their Ligue 1-winning campaign, a symptom of their current standing in the bottom half of their domestic table, but Sanches looked bright at every moment. He was a joy to watch.
Some moments in football can’t be represented in statistics, such as the elegance in which a player glides on the pitch, of which Sanches certainly passes the eye test, but he also produced a metric-friendly showing here to back up that style with substance.
He attempted more take-ons than any other player on the pitch (six), more final third passes than any Chelsea player during his time on the pitch (18) — coming off in the 81st minute — and the fourth-most ball recoveries on the night (eight).
The scoreline didn’t reflect Sanches’ performances and Chelsea were by far the better team on the night — but the Portuguese can leave Stamford Bridge knowing he produced a showing that well and truly exorcised the demons from his ‘advertising hoarding’ pass all those years ago.