Denis Zakaria had not featured for Chelsea since joining on loan in the summer but his debut offered hope of a mutually beneficial conclusion.
By the time the thoroughly underwhelming carousel of the continent’s unwanted central midfielders landed at Chelsea, around 1am the morning after transfer deadline day, the options were desperately sparse.
Idrissa Gueye and James Garner had both moved to Everton. Leander Dendoncker made the short trip to Aston Villa. Liverpool landed Arthur Melo. Brighton took a chance on Billy Gilmour. None of those involved, both clubs and players, will be leaving particularly rave reviews after two months.
Frenkie de Jong, Adrien Rabiot and Leandro Paredes remained technically available but realistically out of reach in a market focused largely on other positions, the biggest bidders all waiting for Jude Bellingham to be presented to the auction room in 2023: only four of the 20 biggest signings made across Europe this summer were central midfielders.
Chelsea ended up with Denis Zakaria and for some time he was treated much like a space filler in the squad, someone to maintain the balance in training ground games and perhaps lap up some Carabao Cup minutes.
If he has a locker at Cobham, it used to belong to Ross Barkley.
The circumstances have not helped. A change of manager is not ideal for any loanee hoping to settle, not least when “Thomas Tuchel was one of the reasons I went to Chelsea”. And then the injury issues must be factored in, especially in light of what those at Stamford Bridge will hope was a precautionary substitution after a promising debut.
Zakaria was a welcome physical presence in the Chelsea midfield, interjecting himself into numerous Dinamo Zagreb moves with careful timing and purpose. Once N’Golo Kante recovers from his latest problems, the Frenchman’s hamstrings will welcome actual competition and cover in a role that no-one else has proven capable of playing for the Blues.
Chelsea will yearn for Marc Cucurella to offer something similar after Ben Chilwell pulled up prone late on, clutching the top of his left leg.
The result had long been certain by then, the game listing into one of those final group game meanders. It feels slightly Garth Crooks to commit 500 words or so to Zakaria after his winning goal, powerfully sidefooted past a host of bodies after Mason Mount’s cutback squeezed through. But that was the eye-catching accompaniment to a commanding performance. And it was followed with a literally pointed celebration; he seemed to seek out Graham Potter in the aftermath, their relationship having been slowly pushed under the microscope in recent weeks.
“The clubs and player will speak again, because at the moment this deal makes no sense for anyone involved,” said Fabrizio Romano last month of a “worrying” situation which has finally been mediated with first-team minutes. There need be no conciliation now the mutual benefit of this deal has become clearer.
“He’s a big, powerful boy who can break up attacks and also join the attack himself,” was Potter’s pre-game description which turned out to be a prescient post-match assessment. “He’s been working hard behind the scenes, supporting the team, so hopefully he’ll do well and give us competition there.”
Even with the caveat of this being the most dead of Champions League rubbers, and bearing in mind Zakaria also showed understandable signs of fatigue and momentary lapses in concentration, his cameo was an essential aspect of a win made entirely necessary by last weekend’s humiliation.
Chelsea need all the help they can get as their injury issues mount. Zakaria was something of a desperate late grab in the window but both parties could have done considerably worse – the Swiss will have to let parent club Juventus know what the Champions League knockouts are like and the Blues could have ended up with Arthur – and they finally seem to be on the same page.