The look on Conor Gallagher’s face spoke volumes. As Enzo Fernandez’s inch-perfect free kick curled into the top corner past the outstretched hand of Emiliano Martinez, the Chelsea midfielder turned around and looked at his team-mate in complete awe.
It was a sublime bit of skill, world class. In the celebrations which followed, Fernandez took his shirt off and gestured to the ground and his head, the emotion of how much the moment meant to him clear for all to see. As the rest of Chelsea’s outfield players surrounded Fernandez, striker Nicolas Jackson kissed the No 8 on the back of the midfielder’s shirt and then held it in front of the TV camera nearby. This was just one sign of the respect Fernandez is held in.
Everyone at Stamford Bridge knows what a special talent Fernandez is and how he can provide the X factor to make Chelsea a force again. Coach Mauricio Pochettino said afterwards: “It (the free kick) did not surprise me because Enzo has the quality not only to score this type of goal but to perform in the way he performed.”
Conor Gallagher’s face says it all 😮
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) February 7, 2024
There were many Chelsea players who went to Villa Park looking to prove a point but few in the starting XI, which had an average age of just 22.8, needed to make an impact more than Fernandez after what has been a trying five months.
When you win a World Cup with Argentina and become the most expensive Premier League signing ever (Fernandez’s £106million move from Benfica to Chelsea in January 2023 will be eclipsed by Moises Caicedo’s £115million August switch to Stamford Bridge from Brighton if £15million in add-ons are triggered), then there are always going to be a lot of expectation on your shoulders.
From February to September last year, Fernandez dealt with it admirably, his classy touches in midfield providing some cause for optimism in what was a tough 2023 for everyone connected to the club. And then — suddenly — all the spark disappeared.
In truth, it was inevitable. Between February 2022 and May 2023, Fernandez made 87 appearances for River Plate, Benfica, Chelsea and Argentina, with an incredible amount of travel and turmoil in between and very little rest. In this short period he changed clubs and countries he is living in twice, plus experienced the emotional high of lifting the World Cup. The intensity has settled slightly in 2023-24, yet there has still been a further 35 fixtures for Chelsea and Argentina.
Such a workload under constant scrutiny is going to take a toll both mentally and physically. The sight of Fernandez crying after Chelsea beat Newcastle in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals in December was a real cause for concern. These were not tears of joy he was expressing but of dismay. It emerged the 23-year-old had been struggling with a hernia injury and while he missed just the next two matches, he continued to look a little subdued.
Sympathy has been in short supply as Chelsea have laboured in mid-table of England’s top division. Such was the abuse Fernandez and Caicedo were subjected to on social media after their team’s heavy 4-1 defeat to Liverpool last week, both men deactivated their accounts on X (formerly known as Twitter). The anger among the Chelsea fanbase grew even more following the 4-2 loss at home to Wolves last weekend.
It takes character, as well as ability, to bounce back from all that.
Fernandez walked off with the man of the match award as he helped Chelsea dominate Aston Villa on their own pitch to secure a surprise 3-1 victory in an FA Cup fourth-round replay. He got the award not just for his masterful goal from a set piece but his overall influence during the 90 minutes, demonstrated partly by a 91 per cent pass completion rate from 47 passes (which included a 100 per cent long pass completion, five from five) and 62 touches. Two of those long passes were in came in the build-up to Chelsea’s two other goals, one drilled to Conor Gallagher and the other to Axel Disasi.
Within hours of the final whistle, his X account was reactivated and he was posting again. Caicedo, despite a vastly improved showing, was not.
Esto es Chelsea. Gracias a todos los fans que viajaron por el apoyo, son increíbles. Estamos todos JUNTOS
THIS IS CHELSEA. Thank you for all the fans who travelled for the support, you are amazing. We are all TOGETHER pic.twitter.com/smHBJtjfCQ
— Enzo Fernández (@Enzo13Fernandez) February 7, 2024
Earlier in the day, Fernandez’s agent Uriel Perez had gone public to deny speculation that Fernandez was unsettled at Chelsea and looking to leave.
Before the coach left Villa Park, Pochettino wanted to defend his prize asset too. When asked by The Athletic about the passionate nature of his goal celebration, he replied: “Look, today we live in an era when it’s easy to abuse public people. It’s normal that the players are human and are not robots.
“Today, Enzo showed why he is here. He showed the quality. But we didn’t have doubts about him or about Caicedo, or about different young players that arrived here with expectation to win titles.
“He is a world champion player. Look, when he signed one year ago, he arrived after nearly two years with no holidays, no rest, with the pressure, still young, different environment, different language, different culture, a team that needs time to build. All of these types of circumstance, you need time.”
Everyone at Chelsea has been reminded this month that patience is in short supply as far as they are concerned and one win will not change that. But players like Fernandez offer hope for the future in this form.
(Top photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)