x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Premier League: Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta right back where he belongs

While Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta solidifes his role with European champions Chelsea, his national side takes notice, writes Andy Mitten.

Cesar Azpilicueta, a 23-year-old defender, made stops at Osasuna and Marseille before he joined Chelsea this season. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Cesar Azpilicueta, a 23-year-old defender, made stops at Osasuna and Marseille before he joined Chelsea this season. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Chelsea's dressing room boasts 12 nationalities and almost as many languages. New players are welcomed, not all on their terms.

The Spanish full-back Cesar Azpilicueta claims his teammates at the Premier League club have given up trying to pronounce his name correctly, so they affectionately call him "Dave" instead.

Azpilicueta, 23, joined the club in July from Marseille for £7 million (Dh38.9m). Handed the No 28 jersey, he was considered as cover for Branislav Ivanovic and Paulo Ferreira.

Accordingly, he made his debut in the Capital One Cup in a weakened Chelsea team in September as they routed the Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers 6-0. He did not make his first league start until November 17, at West Bromwich Albion, entering the team during turbulent times which led to Roberto Di Matteo, the coach who had overseen his transfer, being dismissed.

Azpilicueta has since quietly established himself as the first choice right-back for the European champions, making more passes than all but three other full-backs in the league (all of whom played a lot more games) and as many assists as Everton's highly regarded Leighton Baines this season.

Such was his form, Azpilicueta was also called up to the senior Spain national side for the first time for the friendly against Uruguay, in Qatar in February, with coach Vicente Del Bosque stating: "Azpilicueta is playing many games for Chelsea. He has a lot of energy, defends well and is always willing to attack. We have a lot of hope for him."

Given regular right-back Alvaro Albeloa is the weakest player in the Spain side, the full-back spot could be Azpilicueta's for a long time to come.

It was not only his good form for Chelsea which got him noticed by Del Bosque; he had played for Spain at every level from Under 16 up.

Born in Pamplona, a wealthy city of 250,000 in northern Spain, he was spotted by the local Primera Liga side Osasuna, where he progressed through their youth system.

He initially played as a midfielder – like another young player from Pamplona, Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez.

Pamplona produces footballers; Arsenal full-back Nacho Monreal was also raised in the city famous for the annual running of the bulls, two Premier League rivals with full-backs from the same city.

Osasuna's average crowds are just 15,000, but they have been in the top flight since 2000.

Keeping their best players is a struggle, though, as Athletic Bilbao consider Pamplona to be part of their Basque recruiting area. Wealthier clubs outside the region also tempt them away.

Azpilicueta made his debut for Osasuna as an 18 year old against Real Madrid in 2008. After three seasons as nearly an ever-present at right-back (with Monreal on the left), Osasuna accepted a €7 million (Dh32.9m) bid for him in 2010 from Marseille.

A knee injury in France hindered his first season in Ligue 1, though he played in the Uefa Champions League at the club where he was known as "Azpi", rather than Dave. Marseille wanted him to stay, but needed to sell players to raise revenues and reduce their wage bill after finishing 10th and missing out on Champions League football for 2012/13.

Alou Diarra left for West Ham United, Stephane Mbia and Loic Remy for Queens Park Rangers for £15m in total and Azpilicueta joined Chelsea, one of six summer signings at Stamford Bridge.

He moved to London and an apartment by Chelsea's Cobham training ground with his girlfriend and their two dogs.

If he wants to know where to go in London, he calls compatriot and teammate Juan Mata, whom he also played with for Spain's U21s and Olympic team and whom he describes as being "like a London tour guide". Mata, in turn, describes Azpilicueta as "a young player who is very clever on and off the pitch".

Azpilicueta joined a club who were European champions, yet who were also in turmoil.

Di Matteo, the man who signed him, was dismissed in the autumn after an inconsistent start to the campaign.

Written off a month ago with fans openly hostile to Rafa Benitez, the interim manager, they are still in the FA Cup, where they face Manchester City in the semi-finals at Wembley Stadium a week on Saturday and in the Europa League last 16.

They play Rubin Kazan, the Russian team who knocked out holders Atletico Madrid, in the first leg tonight. Chelsea's – and Azpilicueta's – fortunes have changed, though they face a fight for a top-four Champions League finish in the Premier League.

He is expected to start. That he was absent in Chelsea's last three defeats has not gone unnoticed by his compatriot in charge, and it is to Azpilicueta's credit that he has adjusted quickly to the pace and physical side of English football.

He said recently that the pace was so fast that initially he could hardly breathe in the second half.

Chelsea fans did not notice, though they have noticed his increasingly impressive presence in the side.

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