Chelsea v Manchester United: How a serious injury turned Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta into Mr Indispensible

Full-back tells Miguel Delaney how he worked on his strength and won over Jose Mourinho by putting ‘the team first, second and third’

It’s funny how football can work out. Back in 2010, a 21-year-old Cesar Azpilicueta suffered a career low. Or so he thought. A few minutes after kick-off in Marseille’s 4-0 home League win over Montpellier, the full-back felt his left knee go. It was a rupture to his anterior cruciate ligament, the kind of injury that, at such a young age, can completely change a player’s future. It certainly did that – but not how Azpilicueta expected.

Despite the obvious “pain” and “sacrifice” the Spaniard says was involved, he credits the repercussions of his injury and the subsequent six-month lay-off with changing him into a completely different type of defender. It just so happens to be a type Mourinho greatly appreciates.

“Before, when I was playing in Osasuna, my body was different,” he explains. “After the injury, I think my physique got another dimension and I became stronger. I worked. You need to be strong here.”

Azpilicueta has certainly illustrated that at Chelsea where he has surprisingly become the sturdy foundation on which Mourinho’s new defence is built – and begun to harden. The full-back has started 14 of Chelsea’s last 16 games in all competitions and developed into one of the most used but understated members of the squad.

Despite Mourinho’s preference for a team filled with premium stars, he has always specifically relied on a core of resilient but relatively unfashionable lieutenants. And Azpilicueta is a prime example. In October, ahead of Chelsea’s home win over Manchester City, Mourinho praised the 24-year-old as a player who puts the “team first, the team second and the team third... pushing others in the same direction”.

Unlike the other top-four teams, Chelsea have not suffered a defeat against their direct opponents. They retain an inherent durability. And Azpilicueta relishes the conservative side of the game. “I enjoy when I defend well and the team keeps a clean sheet. It makes you feel strong.”

At first, Mourinho didn’t seem to really like Azpilicueta, possibly viewing him as a Rafa Benitez player, and by early November he had still to start a League game.

Azpilicueta admits now that being away with Spain for the Confederations Cup just when Mourinho was looking to first figure out his new team had not helped. “I came three weeks later so missed the team’s early preparations. I kept working since that day and knew that if I had the chance to show the manager if he needs me, I will be there. I knew I could be better and try to give everything.

“He did say to me he had confidence in me and that I would have time to play – but I earn it on the pitch. That’s the most important thing.”

Mourinho clearly respected his attitude and soon began talking enthusiastically about the defender, in private and public. The feeling is more than mutual. “It’s exciting to work with him,” Azpilicueta gushes. So, what is it exactly about Mourinho that ensures the majority of players so buy into his methods?

“I think it’s the way he is, the feeling,” the Spaniard explains. “He has everything [as a manager]. He’s complete. Every game we play, we know the opponent so well and how to play. I learn a lot.’’

Follow all of the news and updates from today's Premier League matches here

Today against the struggling champions Manchester United, Azpilicueta will likely be in the line of fire, charged with either keeping down the electric Adnan Januzaj or preventing David Moyes’ more prosaic tactic of trying work most attacks down the wing.

It remains to be seen whether Azpilicueta will be paired with Ashley Cole, but that is the other aspect about the Spainard’s conversion: he has often kept out one of Mourinho’s favourite players and England’s premium left-back.

“I know he’s been playing there for a long time,” Azpilicueta says matter-of-factly. “I try to play, he tries to play, and do our best after the manager makes a decision.”

Chelsea’s defence is starting to resemble the niggardly unit of old, conceding just once in the last six games. Mourinho puts it down to a period before Christmas when they finally had time to step back and assess. “We had a big improvement in one week where there was no match, and we dedicated that week to certain aspects of our defensive game. It was just about the visual feedback, with images and computer work, not on the pitch. It was like a turning point. I think the team became much more solid.”

Azpilicueta concurs: “We have more stability, we have more time to prepare and the team, same as me, are settling really well. To be a big team, you need to play with the same players, the same manager. We are in a high level, so I think now we are starting to get that, and I think everyone is feeling on the pitch that we are starting to be a better team.

“Now hopefully, we will have a period of stability, with good results and everybody happy - and trophies.”

Cesar Azpilicueta is supporting Right To Play’s 5k run in Battersea Park on Friday 16 May. Right To Play is Chelsea FC’s global charity partner and uses sport and play to educate and empower over 1 million children every week in disadvantaged communities around the world. Sign up to the run at www.righttoplay.com/kickoff5k

News
i100
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Sport
Neil Warnock
football'New' manager for Crystal Palace
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
voices
Sport
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
News
peopleJustin Bieber accuses paparazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis