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 the latter’s international retirement and Stamford Bridge exit, he also won the Players’ Player of the Year award.
Now he has to raise his game again with Chelsea having signed a specialist left-back in Felipe Luis. The Brazilian cost £15.8m, a substantial sum for a 29-year-old full-back, the sort of sum that would lead most managers to hand him a run in the team.
Jose 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 Premier League game to date. Assuming Azpilicueta plays today, against Aston Villa, his next match will be his 100 in a Chelsea shirt, two years and one month 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 try 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 he felt the club needed the stability that has followed Mourinho’s return. 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, I try to improve 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.”
Cole is now at Roma, leaving Azpilicueta with a new challenge. “I watched Felipe Luis a lot of times. I played against him in Spain. I know he is a very good player. We want the best squad we can so he is a good signing for the team. We all fight for a place and then the manager makes his decision.”
One reason Azpilicueta has kept his place is 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 to make the difference.”
We are talking in a borrowed office in one of the outbuildings 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 French duo have won and, to judge from the whoops of joy, have 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.
However, the 15-minute timed chat typical of a branded interview does not provide the Spaniard with the opportunity to reveal much of his personality, especially in a second language. He comes across as decent, polite and modest, in tune with an off-field lifestyle that mainly revolves around his family. He lives near the training ground with his wife and six-month old daughter and relaxes by walking their two dogs in the Surrey countryside.
Azpilicueta jokes about playing himself on Fifa 15, and scoring against Chelsea (‘that would never happen in real life’, says the man with one 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’ (who would presumably play Liverpool’s team of Jamie Carraghers… in a goalless draw). 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 with different methods, 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.
Azpilicueta was speaking at the launch of EA SPORTS Fifa 15, out NOW on Xbox One, PS4 and all other formats. Pick up your copy from www.easports.com/uk/fifa/buy #FEELTHEGAME
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