'Dave' Azpilicueta shows attitude to delight Mourinho
Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Cesar Azpilicueta has made a career out of fitting in.
Originally a midfielder, he was thrown into Osasuna’s first team at right-back aged 18 due to an injury crisis. He settled so well he made the position his own. Arriving at Chelsea, after two seasons at Marseille, he had to adjust to three managers within a year. When the third, Jose Mourinho, gave him the chance to stake a permanent first-team place it was on his weaker side, at left-back.
Again, Azpilicueta adapted, so impressively he not only kept Ashley Cole on the sidelines, prompting his Stamford Bridge exit, he also won the club’s players’ player of the year award.
Now he has to raise his game again with Chelsea having signed a specialist left-back in Filipe Luís. The Brazilian cost £15.8m from Atletico Madrid, a substantial sum for a 29-year-old full-back, the sort of fee that would lead most managers to hand him a run in the team.
Mourinho, though, is not like most managers. He offered Azpilicueta a new four-year contract earlier this month, which the 25-year-old signed, and has played the Spaniard at left-back in every league game to date. Assuming Azpilicueta features today, at home to Aston Villa, his next match after that will be his 100th in a Chelsea shirt, two years after joining.
“It has gone very quick,” said Azpilicueta. “At the start it was a bit difficult to come to Chelsea, a new club in a new league with very good players. It was very difficult to get into the team, but I did a lot of things to tryx and settle quick into the club, the team, the area.
“Every game, I watch a lot of the opponents from the bench. I was learning about the atmosphere, the pace in the game, the way to play. You have to take everything in if you are not playing, then train as hard as possible so you have the chance to be ready. I always felt I had the confidence of the club, but when (Mourinho) arrived I think, ‘he has big support for me’.”
Azpilicueta added that he felt the club needed the stability that followed Mourinho’s return last year. As for being pitched in at left-back, he said: “I tried to get as quick as possible into the new role. It is more or less the same (as right-back), but I play with different players and use more my left foot. I did a bit of work on my left to try and be better.
“Ashley always helped me, even when I was playing in his position. I never felt anything wrong from him, the opposite, he was always helping and trying to help me in training, he was very professional.
“For me it was a pleasure to have him in my team. I think he is still the best left-back (for) England.”
One reason Azpilicueta has kept his place is the selfless way he covers for Eden Hazard. Playing behind the mercurial Belgian has its challenges defensively but Azpilicueta simply said: “Eden is an attacking player, but he makes the difference, he is one of the best players. (Other) players do a job for him so he can be free.”
We are talking in an office at Chelsea’s Cobham training complex. Azpilicueta has been playing the new Fifa 15 game on a big screen next door with Loic Remy, Andre Schurrle and Willian. The ex-Marseille pair won and, to judge from the whoops of joy, had a lot of fun doing so.
The videos Azpilicueta has posted online, of him explaining how to pronounce his surname (a response to Chelsea’s fans song “Azpilicueta? We’ll just call you Dave”) and meeting the ice-bucket challenge by leaping into an ice bath, also hint at a player with a sense of fun. Azpilicueta jokes about playing himself on Fifa 15, and scoring against Chelsea (“that would never happen in real life,” says the man with a single career goal), but the one time he really sparkles is when asked about being voted player of the year by his peers. His pride is obvious.
“It was recognition from my team-mates. I spend a lot of time with them, and every day I try to do my best, so to have this honour from them is important. I was surprised because we have a lot of quality players and obviously the full-backs do not get a lot of attention. I was really pleased.”
Mourinho has spoken of wanting “a team of Azpilicuetas”. In reality every team needs a livewire, a Jimmy Bullard type who does not take himself, or football, too seriously, and thus lifts the dressing room in the bad times.
It also needs a John Terry-esque leader, who does the same a different way, and one or two players like Hazard who can turn a big match. But most managers would be happy to field an XI that featured six or seven Azpilicuetas, even if it means playing them out of position. (© Independent News Service)