If Cesar Azpilicueta is honest with himself, the chances of making Luis Enrique’s Euro 2020 squad looked to be slim at best at the start of 2021.
The Spain coach appeared to be building towards the future with his squad selections, removing regular internationals such as Iago Aspas, Saul Niguez and Nacho Fernandez.
His boycott of all Real Madrid players was certainly a coded message to the likes of Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal, who had ultimately failed to prove their fitness, that they would not make his squad on reputation alone.
Even with unfit players in defence, it was a surprise to see Azpilicueta mentioned as a possible candidate for Luis Enrique’s squad.
The 31-year-old had not appeared for the national team since 2019 and with only 28 caps to his name, it was not exactly as if he was a guaranteed name to be included.
But only someone who had not watched the Premier League in 2020-21 might have suggested Azpilicueta was undeserving of a place. In the dressing room alone, including a proven winner would have been worth it to guide his young Spain internationals.
Now he looks set to keep his place in the side for Spain’s Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy on Tuesday as he looks to win his first international trophy with La Roja — and it marks quite a comeback from the man who can never be written off.
At the start of last season under Frank Lampard, the right-back lost his place as his performances naturally began to decline with age. Reece James was preferred at right-back and Azpilicueta suddenly found his role in the team under threat.
But did he go marching into the Chelsea boss’ office, demanding that he is reinstated? Did he complain in the press about Lampard’s tactics or speak about leaving Chelsea during the international break?
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No is the short answer. The long answer is that his professionalism, loyalty and understanding of how modern football works means he knew he would get his chance to work his way back into Lampard’s plans.
This was the player who only ended up at Chelsea because when the club made a £7million offer for his services, Marseille were in financial difficulty and could not turn it down.
Azpilicueta wanted to stay but conceded he would be willing to leave if his “departure can help Marseille’s finances”.
Quite the guy.
That move, completed on the eve of their 2012 UEFA Super Cup final defeat against Atletico Madrid, would eventually prove to be one of their finest acquisitions since the turn of the Millennium.
Upon his arrival, Chelsea fans were unsure of how to pronounce his name, thus telling the story of how he was known affectionately as ‘Dave’. Now approaching his 10th season at the club, Azpilicueta has made 429 appearances and the nickname has stuck, even if they know how to say the Pamplona-born man’s name nowadays.
As a player at Chelsea, new managers arrive more often than new kits. Azpilicueta has featured under eight different managers: Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard and now Thomas Tuchel.
And yet, he has found a place under every single one of them.
Mourinho quickly warmed to his all-action style of play and work ethic. In fact, the Portuguese showed his admiration by suggesting in 2014 that a team solely comprising of 11 versions of the defender would win the Champions League.
“Azpilicueta is the kind of player I like a lot,” Mourinho said. “I think a team with 11 Azpilicuetas probably could win the competition because football is not just about the pure talent.
“Football is also about character and personality and Azpilicueta has all those traces of a winning personality.”
He goes to battle like very few players do these days and that is what endeared him to disciplinarians such as Mourinho, who demand work rate as a mandatory characteristic.
The best example of this was that, despite spending £15m to sign Filipe Luis to fill the vacant left-back spot in 2015, Mourinho preferred to use right-footed Azpilicueta there, later describing him as “the best left-back in England”.
The fact that he has never played fewer than 40 games in a season for Chelsea speaks volumes about his fitness levels too. He may not be the most skilled, but is a reliable performer and his versatility makes him a “dream” squad member for coaches like Antonio Conte.
“Last season Azpi was one of the most important players for us,” Conte said.
“In this position as a central defender he is one of the best in the world. He is very good with and without the ball.
“He’s a fantastic guy, he’s always positive, and during the training sessions he works in a fantastic way. For a coach, to have him is a dream.”
When John Terry’s departed in 2016, Chelsea needed a new leader. Replacing their “captain, leader, legend” was near impossible, but Azpilicueta was earmarked as his successor.
Critics questioned why the polite-mannered defender was chosen over David Luiz or Gary Cahill, who were far more vocal. But a captain is not always the player who shouts the loudest or produces a rousing team-talk.
They lead by example, setting the standard for their team-mates. When players and managers speak of Azpilicueta, it becomes easier to understand why he was entrusted with the captaincy.
He was forced to intervene when an extraordinary row erupted between Maurizio Sarri and goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga during the 2018-19 Carabao Cup Final after Kepa had refused to be substituted.
Sarri had stormed down the tunnel before making his way back to the bench and Chelsea eventually lost. In the dressing room after the game at Wembley, Sarri revealed that Azpilicueta acted as a middleman in an attempt to diffuse the situation.
These tidbits from Azpilicueta’s glittering career go some way to proving why Enrique included him in his squad. He has won the Europa League twice, two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and, of course, the Champions League this season. Tuchel found a place for Azpilicueta in his back three but also used him as a wing-back, showing his belief in his abilities.
Every now and then, he will pop up with a crucial goal as Spain found in the 5-3 win over Croatia in the last-16 knockout round. There have been calls for Azpilicueta to be in contention for the Ballon d’Or, alongside his Chelsea team-mates Jorginho and Mason Mount.
“Hahaha! I’m not even thinking about it. Nah,” was his response when asked about the award in an interview with The Guardian.
Azpilicueta might not rate himself in that category, but others do.
If Spain conquer Italy at Wembley and see off England or Denmark in the Euro 2020 Final, he will have his name sung all throughout the streets of Spain — after going so long without recognition.