Cesar Azpilicueta: The Chelsea player who won it all
We reflect on Cesar Azpilicueta’s 11 trophy-laden years as a Chelsea player after he today confirmed he was leaving the club.
Throughout his time at Stamford Bridge, Cesar Azpilicueta stepped up to whatever challenge was put in front of him. No matter the position, the formation or the head coach, the Spaniard was always an integral part of the team.
When Azpilicueta first arrived ahead of the 2012/13 campaign, the then 23-year-old faced a tough task breaking into the side with Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic well-established in the full-back roles and Chelsea champions of Europe after that famous night in Munich.
However, Azpilicueta went from strength to strength over the course of the campaign after making his debut in a 6-0 home win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup. He became an almost ever-present at right-back in the latter months of the season and played the full 90 minutes in all but one of our Europa League games en route to glory in Amsterdam.
Ivanovic was Jose Mourinho’s preferred option on the right of defence early into the campaign that followed, although Azpilicueta’s first start of 2013/14 – a 2-0 League Cup win at Arsenal – did bring his first goal for the club.
Cesar’s versatility was soon demonstrated, however, following an injury to Cole. After a fine performance at left-back against Schalke in the Champions League, he made the spot his own, a situation which did not change even after Cole returned to fitness.
Azpilicueta had forced his way into his manager’s plans and contributed immensely to the Premier League’s best defensive record – we conceded just 27 times in 38 games. As a result, Azpilicueta was named our Players’ Player of the Year.
He remained the first choice left-back despite the signing of Filipe Luis ahead of the 2014/15 season. Once again, Azpilicueta was a vital member of the team as the first league title of his career was sealed. He made 29 top-flight appearances as well as helping us keep a clean sheet in a League Cup final win over Tottenham Hotspur.
The defender’s first Premier League goal for Chelsea earned a 3-2 win over West Bromwich Albion early in the next season, before he reverted to his natural position on the right of our backline under Guus Hiddink in 2015/16.
Another change of role followed as Azpilicueta was used on the right of Antonio Conte’s three-man defence, which he implemented early into his tenure at Stamford Bridge. Azpilicueta excelled as an impressive run of clean sheets contributed to a club-record sequence of wins.
He would go on to play in every minute of every league game in our title-winning 2016/17 season, only the fourth outfield player ever to do so for a victorious Premier League side. And it was his assist for Michy Batshuayi’s goal at West Brom which ultimately secured that status for Chelsea.
Azpilicueta’s leadership qualities were also coming to the fore. He captained Chelsea on 21 occasions in 2017/18, in addition to enjoying his best campaign to that point from an attacking point of view. He scored three goals and set up plenty more, particularly through his excellent understanding with Alvaro Morata. But it was his defensive prowess on show in a clean sheet at Wembley as we beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final.
Returning to right-back in Maurizio Sarri’s side, Azpilicueta made more appearances than any other Blues player for the third successive season, culminating in leading the team out in Baku for our 2019 Europa League final win over Arsenal. His only goal of the campaign, a late equaliser at Cardiff City, turned out to be a crucial one in the top-four race.
His status as captain was made permanent following the departure of Gary Cahill in 2019 and Azpilicueta’s versatility would prove vital in his first campaign as full-time skipper, featuring in four different positions as Frank Lampard frequently shifted formations.
His experience played a big part when football returned following a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic. Azpi played every minute for the remainder of the Premier League as we homed in on Champions League qualification, although his presence was missed when an injury forced him off with the scores tied 1-1 in our FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal.
The emergence of Reece James meant Azpi’s opportunities were limited in the first half of 2020/21, even if his selfless attitude meant he was still an important figure, helping to guide a youthful squad full of potential but light on experience.
However, he was straight into the starting line-up after the arrival of Thomas Tuchel and provided the first goal of our new head coach’s reign by scoring the opener in a 2-0 win against Burnley. A season which had started with the ever-resilient Azpilicueta on the fringes would end with arguably his greatest moment at Chelsea.
Switching between playing on the right of a back three and at wing-back, he missed just three games in all competitions for Tuchel, leading by example in big games to produce some of his best performances for the club.
He became only the second Chelsea captain to lift the Champions League trophy after we beat Manchester City in the final in Porto, one late defensive block to preserve our clean sheet epitomising his commitment to the cause. His contribution was recognised as one of four Blues named on the 30-man shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d’Or.
Azpilicueta’s penultimate season at Stamford Bridge underlined his status as one the most successful Chelsea players of all time, as he captained us to two more trophies in the form of the UEFA Super Cup and, for the first time in our history, the FIFA Club World Cup. He completed his own clean sweep of major silverware in the process.
Those trophy successes were followed by a major landmark as Azpi captained the side for the 200th time, in a 1-1 Premier League draw with Manchester United in April, five years after he had first worn the armband, at Wembley in a 4-2 FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham.
Azpilicueta passed the 500-game mark in his last season at Chelsea. He leaves the club having made more appearances than any other overseas player in our history. Indeed, only five Blues have featured more for Chelsea, and he rightly joins Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti, John Terry, Frank Lampard and John Hollins on the list of true club legends.
Farewell, Cesar. The Chelsea player who really did win it all.