Cesar Azpilicueta: Chelsea’s unlikely candidate for player of the year
Antonio Conte considers him one of the best defenders in the world – Dan Levene gives the low-down on Chelsea's Mr Dependable, Cesar Azpilicueta.
He was bought as a right back, excelled at left back, and is now showing the Premier League how to make a back-three work.
Cesar Azpilicueta, candidate for Chelsea's player of the year over the last four seasons, is again in the running to be crowned his club's best performer.
On Thursday night, speaking in front of the bib and tucker crowd at the Chelsea Pitch Owners gala dinner, Blue boss Antonio Conte put it all into words.
“He's incredible in his new role,” he said of the Spanish defender, “one of the best in the world in this role.”
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte celebrates with Cesar Azpilicueta after the gameReuters
Fullbacks are seldom the priciest buy in a squad, but even so the £7 million spent on luring Azpilicueta from Marseille in summer 2012 looks like an incredible bargain now.
Chelsea knew they were buying versatility, but essentially he was brought in to cover the gap on the right created by departing Champions League winner Jose Bosingwa.
Fullbacks can be looked upon, by some in football, as the bass player in the setup. Not quite a defender, not quite a winger, the argument goes that most set out to be one or other, but couldn't quite cut the mustard.
It doesn't have to be that way. Like the man who plucks out the four-string bottom-line, a great fullback can dictate the pace and tone of a game.
Anyone who saw Ashley Cole's career will be aware that a natural in that role can be essential in elevating a team to a higher plane.
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (R) challenges Chelsea's Ashley Cole during their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford, northern England August 26, 2013. REUTERSEurosport
And that makes Azpilicueta's rise to prominence even more remarkable as it was Cole he ousted from this Chelsea side – and he did it playing away from his fancied position.
The time was probably right, to be fair, when it came to Cole's final bow from the Premier League. Even the greatest left back of his generation could not go on forever.
But for such a relative novice to so seamlessly replace him, playing off the wrong foot, gives the measure of this Pamplona-born ace.
And he showed all the signs of having learned from the best.
Yes he could run, cover and cross, but the new boy in the side also showed that he possessed a reading of the game, and a refusal to be beaten, which set him apart from others.
If you are the one in the press box whose job it is to do player ratings, you can generally award him an eight, and there aren't many games in the last four seasons where that would be wrong.
Chelsea's David Luiz celebrates after the game with Cesar AzpilicuetaReuters
Moving into his new role, the 27-year-old is now fulfilling a brief few would have expected to see.
David Luiz, the main ball player in the centre of Conte's three-man defence, is again ahead of him in terms of recognition. The Brazilian has confounded critics, this one included, since returning to Stamford Bridge and has barely put a foot wrong this season.
But he has done this, to a major extent, because of the cover he has been given by N'Golo Kante and Azpilicueta, who allow him the breathing space to make minor errors, because they are so disciplined in catching the hot coal before it burns the carpet.
“I have won the Premier League, Europa League and League Cup,” said the Spaniard this week, reminding us of how he has helped gild both his own CV and Chelsea's trophy cabinet.
“I don’t know how many it would take,” he continued, taking of the route to greatness, “but some players have won Champions League and other trophies, and you want to get up there with them.”
With Azpilicueta in their defence, Chelsea's chances of doing that for a second time in the coming seasons should not be ruled out.