César Azpilicueta falls about. “Nah, man,” he says, flashing a big white grin, the slightest hint of dimples. “No way.” Wait, though. Think about it for a moment: by this time next week you could be a double European champion. There is no one else who can offer up a Ballon d’Or candidacy quite like it.
“Hahaha! I’m not even thinking about it. Nah.”
Actually, maybe there is one: Jorginho, your opponent in the Euro 2020 semi‑final at Wembley on Tuesday night. In Italy, people really are starting to talk about him, so why not you?
“We’re the only club that will have a double champion, that’s true: all four teams left have Chelsea players. [Jorginho and Emerson Palmieri with Italy, Denmark’s Andreas Christensen, and Mason Mount, Ben Chilwell and Reece James for England.] Around this time of year, people always start talking about it, but what matters is the team. Winning the Champions League was lovely, now we have a nice challenge with the Euros, another opportunity.”
Jorginho is playing a key role for Italy. Is there a parallel between him and Sergio Busquets?
“They’re two great players who move well in short spaces: intelligent, tactically sharp, they judge space well and always choose the right pass for the team. Jorginho is a great footballer, very important for the way Italy play. He likes to be in contact with the ball, to control the game, he’s clever. The less he intervenes the more we have a chance of controlling the game. He’s surrounded by great players too and we’ll have to come up with a collective solution. I’m fortunate to be able to enjoy Jorginho with Chelsea and Sergio with the national team. Hopefully we can control Tuesday: Sergio’s very important for us in that.”
Because of Leonardo Spinazzola’s injury, Emerson will play after a season in which he made only two Premier League appearances.
“He’s a clear example of the strength of the group at Chelsea, the togetherness. Despite playing very little he has always contributed, he keeps a positive attitude and trains hard, awaiting his chance. He scored an important goal against Atlético Madrid. The group makes the difference; that carried us to the Champions League.”
Have this Italy side surprised you?
“They were very good in qualifying. They’re on a long run of games in which they have let in very few goals. Maybe we’re seeing an Italy that wants to impose itself more, that wants more of the ball. The style has changed a bit and they’re very dangerous. But their results at the Euros are a reflection of what they’ve been doing for a while.”
Spain’s style, by contrast, feels more set. But this isn’t quite what it was.
“All the way back to my time with the Spanish categorías inferiores, we had the same DNA: control the play, combine, carry the weight of the game. Also, when I first started coming at 15, I did everything as I would in the senior squad, so that when the moment came you feel like you have lived this before, like you know what it’s like to be at a tournament. Every coach has their touch and Luis Enrique wants more intensity, we’re more aggressive. The intensity he likes has got us here.”
Is that Spanish DNA yours too or are you a bit different? You started at Osasuna, a club with a tougher, more direct identity. And you’ve spent almost a decade in England.
“I’ve had to adapt, that’s for sure. When I was little, I played more as a winger. In Spain’s youth teams the style was different to Osasuna; more about control. When I got to Marseille, it’s different and Chelsea is another level again. When I got the call to come back to the Spain squad [in May] I’d been away a long time but I knew the ideas from 2018 and adapted as quickly as I could to the manager’s ideas – to play his way, ready for the chance he gave me in the third game.”
This Spain side is a new, young team still in reconstruction. There are only seven of you left from Russia. And two of those, you and Koke, were away two years before coming back.
“It wasn’t a good tournament and we started a reconstruction which has been pushed along by the quality of the young players, many of them European champions at youth level [13 Spain players, including Azpilicueta, have won the Euros at U17, U19 or U21 level]. They’re getting bigger roles at their clubs, too, and are knocking the door down.”
Might that explain the inconsistency? Spain are in the last four but they have won only twice and one of those was in extra time.
“Football is like that. It’s true that we didn’t have a good start to the Euros in terms of results – because the play, our domination, didn’t translate into results. I think the team is doing incredible work. It’s true that in the 10 minutes before extra time against Croatia there were plays we should have defended better and we lost the ball. We improved that in extra time, which tired them and allowed us to control the game. We have the ambition and hope of an entire country. We know that when you get to this stage against a team like Italy you have to take care over every detail.”
Is tiredness a factor?
“The journey back from St Petersburg was a bit longer than normal. We got back here at six, seven in the morning. We rested a bit in the morning, had lunch, then trained. But that’s why the whole group is here: we saw against Croatia and Switzerland that it’s the players who come on who can make the difference.”
The criticism of Álvaro Morata has been particularly fierce, subjected to abuse from his own fans.
“There are always more demands made of forwards. Álvaro does an amazing job for the team: he’s the first to defend, which allows us all to be further up the pitch. He has already scored goals and more will come. He always wants the ball, works, never stops looking for those chances. We have total faith in him. The line that was crossed is incredible; it’s hard to believe we’ve reached this point. I don’t understand it. In England we have been working a lot on this: there was the boycott of social media and those platforms have to step up to eradicate this type of behaviour. I can’t get it into my head that people write the things they write. A lot of people hide behind a false identity, writing whatever they like with impunity.”
Football’s coming home and so are you.
“Haha! I don’t know how many times I’ve played at Wembley, there have been finals [four FA Cup finals, two League Cup finals], semis, matches against Spurs when they were there, Spain against England. It’s very special for me. I’ve been in England nine years and it’s a homecoming, for sure. Seville was unique, playing a tournament at home. My family couldn’t go to St Petersburg. But in London they’re right there. My eldest daughter is a big football fan. They’ll go and hopefully Spaniards in London can come and see us, too.”
It could be England in the final. Have you spoken to your Chelsea teammates?
“No, not really. Everyone tries to keep their cards close to their chest, haha. England haven’t let in a single goal and were much the better side in the quarter-final but my only thought now is Italy. ‘There’s no point thinking if…’ It’s Italy, a hard game, and we have come off the back of two extra times.”
You were on the long list for 2010 but didn’t go. You weren’t there when they won the 2012 Euros. Is this the tournament that’s meant the most to you, where you have felt most involved?
“Yes, after two and a half years away …”
Was that strange to you?
“I was lucky enough to have seen it from the other side. I was in almost every squad for six years: World Cup, Euros, World Cup, even if I didn’t always have the role I have now. Then I went a long time without coming. There’s nothing you can do except keep working for Chelsea. You don’t know when another chance is coming but when it does, you have to be ready. And, look, it came in time for the Euros. I know the competition is brutal. I had that thorn in my side, the feeling of not having had a good tournament with Spain, not having been important. This time the opportunity comes at a different stage of my career: I’m more experienced, I’ve got more weight, I’m a Champions League winner …”
And a Ballon d’Or candidate?
“Haha! Nah, that’s another story.”