2021 Champions League final: Chelsea's César Azpilicueta talks to AS
As his Chelsea side prepare to take on Manchester City in the Champions League final, Blues captain César Azpilicueta sat down for a chat with AS.
Ahead of Saturday's Champions League final against Manchester City, Chelsea captain César Azpilicueta spoke to AS. The defender, 31, could become the first Spaniard to skipper a non-LaLiga team to victory in Europe's premier club competition.
Is this the most special game of your career?
Yes, of course. From an early age I’d always dreamed of playing in the Champions League, and so obviously appearing in the final itself is really special for any player. It’s something you’ll be able to look back on. Winning this trophy is one of the biggest things you can achieve in football, both collectively and individually. I arrived at Chelsea in 2012, just after the club had won the European title, and I’ve always thought about repeating that feat. We got so close in 2014, and now we’ve earned this opportunity to win it.
You're the Chelsea captain; can you picture yourself lifting the famous trophy?
Hopefully I will. You always dream about those kinds of moments. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s going to be a really, really difficult game, but we have confidence in ourselves. We know we’ll need to put in the perfect performance and we’ll try to use the weapons we have at our disposal.
As a player, do you think about what the celebrations would be like if you won?
No, you can’t look ahead to that. From previous trophy wins, I’ve found that so many emotions come to the surface. But it’s important to focus on the game and not to think about what might come afterwards.
You began your career at CD San Cernin in Pamplona. Do you ever think back to those times?
It’s difficult to stop and look back; you scarcely have time to. But when you do, you say: Wow! Look at where I was then and where I am now. It’s been a long journey, I’ve had to work my socks off every second of my career, and when you get to football at the top level, the demands couldn’t be higher. Now we have a Champions League final in front of us. That’s the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around too often, so you have to take it.
You used to be a winger.
I was a forward! I made my first-team debut at Osasuna as a right winger and after that I began my reconversion to pretty much every other position on the pitch [laughs].
Were you the best player in your team growing up?
No, not at all. I remember that when I was 12, I wasn’t picked by Navarre for an interregional tournament in Spain. I didn’t get in. Then, when we were under-16s players at Osasuna, the Spain call-ups began and I would be left out. I was never one of the stand-out players of my generation.
"There were always players who caught the eye more than me, but I just took it step by step"
Now those lads who did stand out can only look at you in awe…
I don’t know… There were always players who caught the eye more than me, but I just took it step by step. The main thing is to know what you can bring to the team and not to focus too much on the other players around you. You don’t necessarily have to be the best. Every player’s development follows its own path. In the end, the hard work has paid off for me.
Was your switch to full-back a key moment in your career?
It was important, yeah. Although it’s not as if I pulled up any trees when I began playing at full-back [laughs]. It was [former Osasuna coach] Cuco Ziganda who played me there. He stuck with me and showed faith in me as a full-back, and little by little I grew into the role. And importantly, because of an injury I suffered [at Marseille, a torn anterior cruciate ligament], my body changed. I put on a little more bulk and that change made me better suited to a more physical European game, first in France and then in the Premier League.
When was your ultra-competitive playing personality forged?
The injury was a turning point. Until then, everything had gone pretty smoothly. I’d been a starter for Osasuna, I was a regular for Spain Under-21s, Marseille had made me one of their most expensive players… It seemed like everything in football came easily. When I arrived at Marseille, I suffered the consequences of moving to a bigger club with expectations. Bear in mind that I was the Spaniard they’d paid six million euros for. I really struggled to play my best football to begin with. You find out what the demands are like at a club where you have to win week in, week out. Because of Osasuna’s limitations, I hadn’t experienced that there. At a big club, more and more is demanded of you every day, the fans put a lot of pressure on you… and as I was getting used to that, I got injured.
How did it affect you mentally?
It made me see things completely differently. I learned to appreciate everything that bit more: every second that I was able to walk, go to training and work hard - even harder than before. Before the injury, I had always played and everything had gone well, but in that moment you find yourself in a very different situation. I remember that I set myself the goal of making it back for the Euros with the Under-21s. I worked flat out and managed it.
Then the offer from Chelsea came in…
Yeah, it was almost at the end of the transfer window. I’ll never forget turning up for my first training session and going into that dressing room. It’s true that I knew [Juan] Mata and had spoken to him, but I sat down and all around me I had the likes of [John] Terry, [Frank] Lampard, [Petr] Cech, Ashley Cole and Fernando Torres. Torres is a guy who had been one of my idols growing up… I knew I’d have to be on my game when I went out and trained. My team-mates really helped me to settle in.
Who were you competing with for your place in the team?
[Branislav] Ivanovic and [Paulo] Ferreira were the right-backs. I found it hard to begin with, but when Rafa Benítez came in as coach I got more opportunities.
Now you've been in the UK capital for so many years, it must be hard to spot the difference between you and a true Londoner!
I don’t know about that! I live in the outskirts, close to the training ground. I go into London, but not much. To get around it’s easier where I am, because I have the training ground five minutes away. That way I avoid traffic jams [laughs].
"Kanté is something else. He wins all the stamina tests"
You don't strike me as the kind of player who has the latest sports car. Am I right?
Yeah… I have a nice car, but it isn’t like some of the others you see around [laughs]. There are obviously things I like to spend my money on and I try to enjoy them, but cars aren’t something that drive me wild and it’s not like I use them much, either. I go from the school run to the training ground and back home.
Do you have any tattoos?
Would you describe yourself as an example of a player who's a good defender without having to be a tough guy?
Every player is different. It depends on your personality. There are guys who have that profile and that’s to be respected, but in my case I’m comfortable being like this; it’s the way I am.
Did you ever imagine you'd make more than 400 appearances for Chelsea?
No, no way. You’re always looking to play an important role at a club, but I wasn’t brought in as a starter. I’ve worked under a number of coaches, I’ve played in several positions. I’m pleased with my figures, but I always want more. That’s just the way I am. I don’t stop and think about what I’ve achieved; I think about what I can still do.
There are similarities between you and Carles Puyol.
[Puffs out his cheeks] Uff, Puyol is a legend. I was lucky enough to make my Spain debut on his 100th and final appearance. He’s always been an idol of mine because of his grit and determination… Having played in a number of different positions, I’ve always looked to a lot of players for inspiration and have tried to learn from all of them.
"Tuchel's arrival was important. We’ve come on a lot from where we were before to where we are now"
Do you prefer playing at full-back or centre-back?
Both. I’ve played in three-man defences, in four-man defences, as a wing-back, as a centre-back, as a right-back, as a left-back… I’m always aware that I can be useful in different positions and, depending on the system or the players, coaches think I can offer more to the team in one position or another. For me, that’s great.
Is defending easier than attacking?
Forwards will tell you it is and us defenders will tell you it isn’t. Attacking, and the skill that goes with it, is what provides the entertainment and is what people want to see. But for me, defending is also a way of understanding football and enjoying it. As a defender, I get a real kick out of defending.
What can you tell me about Thomas Tuchel?
His arrival was important. We’ve come on a lot from where we were before to where we are now. We’ve managed to qualify for the Champions League, we were unlucky enough to lose the FA Cup final, and now we have the final in Porto. We’ve come up against strong sides like Atlético Madrid, Porto and Real Madrid… Reaching the final of the Champions League isn’t easy. It’s only happened three times in this club’s history. Everyone deserves a lot of credit - the coach included, obviously.
The changes Tuchel made were key: three at the back, bringing back people like Jorginho, you…
There wasn’t much time to try things out. We were playing every three days, but he had a very clear idea of what he wanted and the results started to come. The players started to gain in confidence and we grew as a team. We improved. On an individual level, he’s shown real confidence in me and I’m very happy about that.
What happened with Lampard?
We didn’t get the results we wanted. At the start of December, we were in good nick; we’d beaten Sevilla 4-0, Leeds 3-1, we were top… But we weren’t able to keep that going. Our performances and results took a dip, and we reached a point where the club decided the best thing to do was to change coaches.
It has to be said: Chelsea have a great squad.
Yeah, we’ve got a blend of experienced heads and younger players, many of whom are experiencing the Premier League for the first time. For some it’s also their first taste of Champions League football, or their second year of it. Every one of us is helping and contributing from our position on the pitch. There’s a real togetherness in the dressing room and we’re desperate to finish off the season in the best way possible.
And tell me about N'Golo Kanté - does he run as much in training as during games?
[Laughs] He’s something else. He wins all the stamina tests. He’s unbeatable!
You're up against a fantastic Manchester City side.
Absolutely. They’ve been together for many years, they have top players and a clearly defined system… What can I tell you about City that you don’t already know? We’ve come up against them several times and we know we’ll have to put in a perfect performance to win. But we have our weapons and it’s a final. We’re going to give our all to win it.
City also look stronger than ever in defence since signing Rúben Dias.
They have players who make the difference in every position. They’ve been building their squad for years. They have players with experience who know the Champions League inside out. They’re always looking for top players in every position, and that’s why they signed Dias.
To top things off for you, you've been included in Spain's squad for the European Championship.
Yeah, I’m delighted about that. I hadn’t been called up since November 2018. I’ve always worked as hard as I can for my club to give the national coach a decision to make. Up to that point I’d been lucky enough to go to a number of tournaments, but then I had watch on from the outside, working hard and respecting the decisions of the national coach. All I could do was cheer the team on from my sofa. I’m delighted to be back in the squad.
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