It is the summer of 2012 and Chelsea Football Club is basking in the glory of winning the Champions League for the very first time.
For countless legends within the Blues dressing room, the ultimate dream has finally been realised. For those at board level, however, now is the moment to use the cache of European champions and capatalise in the transfer market.
Chelsea spent big in the weeks after lifting the big-eared trophy in Munich. Eden Hazard arrived for £32million from Lille. Oscar joined from Brazilian side Internacional for £20m. Moves for Marko Marin and Victor Moses were also completed.
It was towards the end of August the Blues’ final signing of that summer was completed. It was a £7m deal to bring in a largely unknown Spanish defender to Stamford Bridge from French club Marseille.
“Most of them [the players] didn’t know who I was,” Cesar Azpilicueta admitted in an interview with the Daily Mail in 2019 when looking back at his arrival at Chelsea.
“There wasn’t a big fee or a lot of talk about me as a player. I knew I would have to fight. I knew many players came here and had to go on loan because they couldn’t find their place. My first game in a Chelsea shirt was for the under-23s on an academy pitch. I remember it well. My first months nearly every time on the bench. I didn’t play a lot but I didn’t think to quit.”
Azpilicueta’s force of will served him well in those early months at Chelsea. By the November of his first campaign, he’d established himself as the first-choice right-back. From then until now, he’s rarely been out of the starting XI.
As is par for the course at Chelsea, head coaches have come and gone over the last nine years. The squad has been dramatically reshaped in that time too. Club legends moved on or retired and in their place came countless new additions, some more successful than others.
Azpilicueta remained through it all. His first season ended with the Blues winning the Europa League. He started at right-back in the final victory over Benfica.
The following year, after Jose Mourinho’s return, the man nicknamed ‘Dave’ by Chelsea supporters was deployed as a left-back ahead of Ashley Cole, one of the finest ever to play the game. That campaign ended with the Blues as Premier League and League Cup champions.
“Azpilicueta, when I watch him, he’s as near to perfect as possible when it comes to defending; he’s immaculate,” Sky Sports pundit and former Manchester United defender Gary Neville said during that campaign.
“He’s an out-and-out defender,” Neville’s colleague, Jamie Carragher, added. “You very rarely see anybody get the better of him. He’d be my number one.”
In the years ahead, Azpilicueta would win further honours at Stamford Bridge. Another Premier League title and an FA Cup were achieved with Antonio Conte at the helm. In the Italian coach’s 3-4-3 shape, Azpilicueta played as the right-sided centre-back and was flawless.
He would return to right-back under Maurizio Sarri and lifted the 2019 Europa League after Chelsea overcame London rivals Arsenal 4-1 in the final. And then there is, of course, the Blues’ and Azpilicueta’s most recent success: the Champions League.
This season hasn’t always been easy for the Spanish international. He spent much of the first half of the campaign on the bench with Frank Lampard preferring Reece James at right-back in his 4-3-3 shape. When used at full-back, the 31-year-old endured a few tough afternoons, with his lack of pace harshly exposed.
Yet the appointment of Thomas Tuchel and the German’s decision to implement a 3-4-2-1 system gave Azpilicueta an opportunity on the right side of a back three once more. It’s one he grasped, never let go of, and resulted in him lifting the European Cup aloft in Porto on Saturday.
“We want to fight for everything,” Azpiliecueta said after the 1-0 victory over Manchester City on Saturday. “At Chelsea, I always learn we go for everything and fight for every single trophy. I am pleased that I got my hands on the trophy I had missed.”
Azpilicueta’s trophy haul is now the envy of many players across Europe. He has, at club level, pretty much won it all at Stamford Bridge. That he’s done so while playing in three different positions – and even featuring as a wing-back and winger on occasions – is testament to his ability and mentality.
Few other defenders in European football could have done so. The majority of specialists, players who’ve honed their craft in one role over years. Azpilicueta’s versatility is not normal.
“It was something I did as a kid,” he has admitted. “I was never unhappy to play in different positions. I was always ready to adapt and improve.”
Azpilicueta is a bonafide Chelsea legend, someone whose name should rightly be mentioned alongside the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.
Yet his achievements deserve wider recognition too, his reputation should precede him across the European game.
Right-back. Centre-back. Left-back. Azpilcueta has played the lot to the very highest of standards. He is, quite simply, one of the best defenders of his generation. It’s time for that to be realised.