It’s been six months of near-total change at Chelsea – and Cesar Azpilicueta was nearly part of it.
New owners, new recruitment methods – and the Blues almost had to find a new captain too. Azpilicueta informed Chelsea in February that – after nearly 10 years at the club – he wanted a new challenge.
The Spaniard’s reasons were probably justified – Azpilicueta has now won every trophy available to him as a Chelsea player and a move back to Spain, with Barcelona among those reportedly interested, looked well on the cards.
Under the new ownership group led by Todd Boehly, Chelsea stood firm and Azpilicueta penned a new two-year deal. Now the defender remains one of the key mainstays from the Roman Abramovich era alongside manager Thomas Tuchel.
“I always stayed committed to the club, it’s how I’ve been since day one,” Azpilicueta tells Sky Sports when talking about the long period of “uncertainty”. “This is my home and I never took the selfish decision [to leave].
“After the Club World Cup, I shared my feelings [about leaving], it was never a decision about contract years or wages. I expressed my feelings and then everything changed with the ownership and sanctions.
“I dealt with the situation in my own way. We [he and the new owners] had honest conversations and I’m really proud to be the Chelsea captain and I’m looking forward for the next years. I decided that the best thing for everybody was to stay.”
Chelsea’s new owners are central to Azpilicueta committing to the club and that is a major boost for the new structure. There is a feeling that Chelsea’s longest-serving player – who lived and breathed the trophy-laden Abramovich era – is confident the Boehly consortium will bring success.
The new owners have backed up their pleas to Azpilicueta with funds. Chelsea have pinched Raheem Sterling from Manchester City, while the Boehlys managed to steal City target Marc Cucurella from right under the Premier League champions’ noses.
The arrivals of experienced centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly and young midfielder Carney Chukwuemeka gives the impression that the Boehlys think about both the immediate success of the club and its long-term planning – and Chelsea’s captain approves.
“It’s very important that we keep the ambition high and keep winning trophies – and we have showed that with our transfers and the new players coming in,” the Spaniard adds.
“I’ve seen a great ambition, they [the owners] have been very transparent and honest since the first day. We’ve seen straight away in the transfer window and it’s not easy to step up after just a few months of sanctions where you can’t make any movements.
“In football, the competition is really high. You have more teams who want players and it’s very difficult. Sometimes you need a bit more time, but we’ve had a great recruitment until now. They [the new owners] have shown in other sports how successful they have been and I am fully confident that we will have a successful period as a club.
And there could be more transfers on the way, with Barcelona duo Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Frenkie de Jong both on Chelsea’s radar. “We’re still working on more until the last day,” says Azpilicueta. “There’s still some movement around and I’m very excited.”
The feel-good factor regarding their new owners from inside is contrasting from some doubts that success can be immediate straight away. Gary Neville led some uncertainty last week, saying he’s “unsure” about whether Chelsea can pip Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United to the top four.
When asked if patience is needed at Chelsea, Azpilicueta is adamant: “I don’t really agree with that. In football, it’s difficult to ask for time.
“Sometimes it can take a little bit more time to learn as they have different routines. But our job on the pitch is to work as hard as we can to get results on the pitch because positive results help everything around you.”
Chelsea will get a big indication of what kind of season they can have when they take on Tottenham this Sunday, live on Sky Sports. The London derby represents not just the first match of the season between two ‘Big Six’ sides, but whether an improving Tottenham side under Antonio Conte have moved ahead of Chelsea in terms of progress and planning.
“It’s the second game of the season, we’ve only just started,” says Azpilicueta when asked if victory sends out a statement to the rest of the division. “But against Tottenham, it doesn’t matter when you play them – it’s just about winning.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game – they did their transfer business before pre-season. We know Antonio very well and how he prepares his teams. We have to be ready and we’re working hard to be ready.”
After helping Chelsea to a clean sheet win over Everton last week, Azpilicueta – alongside new signing Koulibably – will be tasked with shutting out arguably one of the hottest front threes in the Premier League at the moment. Golden Boot winner Heung-Min Son, England captain Harry Kane and promising starlet Dejan Kulusevski have scored 33 goals and registered 21 assists between them since the end of February.
“They are quality players, the numbers are there in the way they score goals and create chances,” Azpilicueta says when asked about the Tottenham trio. “As a team, they work well together and are organised.
“Big games can be decided by small details – and the answer for that is working together, being offensive and trying to play in the opposite half – then be ready to defend because there’s moments where you have to cope with it.”
Azpilicueta knows full well how Conte can revolutionise a team in the way Conte has at Spurs. The Spaniard was branded one of the “best defenders in the world” by the Italian coach in the 2016/17 season – a campaign which saw Conte lift the title at Stamford Bridge and Azpilicueta play every second in the league.
“The day he came, he told me you were playing right centre-back,” recalls the defender. “I was playing left-back at the beginning of the season and then we switched to a back three.
“He gave me confidence to play, the patterns and the solutions to work a lot defensively. We had a lot of sessions as a unit. Physically I felt so strong, he gave me the confidence and the opportunity to play in a position which I never played before. I had to work hard, very hard.”
Azpilicueta will take some of those Conte lessons as he tries to put his former manager down a notch this weekend.