Azpilicueta’s journey from zero to hero

After Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville named Cesar Azpilicueta as the Premier League’s best defender, we track his journey from unknown zero to Chelsea hero.

When he arrived at Chelsea initially as a back-up player for just £6.5million shortly after his impressive appearance at the 2012 Olympics, it was perhaps tough to envisage Cesar Azpilicueta becoming such an integral member of the Blues’ team.

He began life in west London under the leadership of Roberto Di Matteo before he was unceremoniously sacked just three months later and swiftly replaced by much-maligned boss Rafa Benitez.

Azpilicueta quickly became a regular at right-back under Benitez, though, as his steady showings eventually earned him 27 league outings and a further 19 in domestic cups and European competition combined in a more than solid first season in England.

However, the Blues set out at the beginning of the 2013/14 campaign with Jose Mourinho newly-installed as manager for a second stint in charge at Stamford Bridge and Azpilicueta suddenly found himself in the cold.

Branislav Ivanovic was preferred in the Spaniard’s natural position, while the evergreen Ashley Cole started out as Mourinho’s first-choice on the left-hand side.

It wasn’t until October 2013, when an injury to former Arsenal star Cole presented Azpilicueta with an opportunity for a return, though even then you suspected Mourinho simply saw the Spaniard as a convenient stop-gap option.

Unexpectedly, it soon became impossible to leave the Spanish international out of the starting line-up even when England left-back Cole made a comeback such was his impact.

The Pamplona-born competitor’s barnstorming performances even led to his claiming of the Chelsea Players’ Player of the Year award, as his contribution to the Premier League’s meanest defence was enthusiastically acknowledged by his team-mates.

Those displays also guaranteed him a spot in Spain’s 23-man squad for the World Cup finals in Brazil where he started two of three group games, but also experienced deep disappointment when the defending champions crashed out at the first hurdle.

The former Osasuna and Marseille defender maintained top form despite that shock outcome in South America and has so far kept new £16million signing Filipe Luis out of the picture.

It’s testament to the 25-year-old’s quality that he’s seen off the challenge for that left-back slot from illustrious footballers such as Ashley Cole – now with Roma – and highly-rated Brazilian Felipe Luis, who joined from La Liga winners Atletico Madrid this past summer.

Alongside usual back-four team-mates Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill and club captain John Terry, Azpilicueta’s combative versatility has significantly assisted Chelsea’s unbeaten rise to the top of the league in tandem with the second-best goals against record in the division.

Crucial interceptions, tireless running and an ability to play a simple pass effectively combine to make Azpilicueta undoubtedly one of the finest full-backs in the business at the moment. And, still in his mid-20s, he can only get better.

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