There may be no return to Spain for Cesar Azpilicueta tomorrow but the opportunity to face La Liga’s outstanding side and continue our Champions League adventure into the knockout stages is one that is eagerly anticipated by the Chelsea captain.
When the last-16 draw was made back in December, it paired the Blues with Diego Simeone’s men for our second meeting in four seasons and presented the chance for Azpilicueta to return to his homeland for the first leg.
Born and raised 400km north of Madrid in Pamplona, the defender came through the ranks at Osasuna and enjoyed plenty of domestic battles with the capital’s big two. Spanish government restrictions have resulted in the game taking place in Bucharest instead, the latest compromise made to keep elite football rolling.
‘It would have been nice to play in Madrid with the fans but I’m afraid this is the situation we have to deal with,’ reflected Azpilicueta in a press conference at Cobham this afternoon prior to the team travelling to Romania.
‘It’s been nearly a year now that we’ve been playing without fans so we just have to adapt really. I don’t really know if it’s better or worse [to play in Bucharest] but that’s the situation.’
Regardless of which city the game is played in, Atletico are sure to be formidable opponents. League leaders in Spain since Christmas, they have conceded just 16 goals in 23 La Liga matches, having also added Luis Suarez to an attacking unit featuring Joao Felix, Angel Correa and Yannick Carrasco.
They may have lost in the league at the weekend, their first defeat since the Round of 16 draw was made, but Azpilicueta is under no illusions how tough an opponent they will be.
‘They’re a very solid team, top of the league in Spain and that’s well deserved,’ he explained. ‘Even though they lost last weekend at home, we know that we are facing a very strong team with experience in the competition, with a manager that they have been working together with for a few years.
‘We have to try to play our game - to control the game, try to create chances, be clinical up front and defend well.’
Defending well means keeping Suarez in check. The Uruguayan has 16 goals in all competitions so far this season and blunting his threat will prove crucial if the Blues are to progress through to the quarter-finals.
Azpilicueta recalls memorable past meetings with the 34-year-old and suggests it will be a job for everybody in the team to keep him quiet at the National Arena in Bucharest tomorrow night.
‘The best way to defend against him is to keep him as far as possible from the goal and that’s a collective job,’ added the skipper. ‘I faced him when he was at Liverpool and Barcelona in the Champions League so I know he’s a great striker.
‘We know his numbers and we know wherever he has played, he has scored lots of goals so we have to try to defend against him together and keep all their attacking players away from our goal.’
It will be nine years this summer since a fresh-faced Azpilicueta arrived in west London to sign for the reigning European champions. During that time, we have advanced beyond the last-16 just once, falling at the semi-final stage in 2013/14 to Atletico.
Azpilicueta struggles to hide his personal disappointment at that record, winning the biggest prize in European football clearly still a burning ambition for the Spaniard.
‘When I joined Chelsea in 2012 after the club had won the Champions League, of course it was my aim to repeat that,’ he added.
‘It’s something that sticks inside and every year when the chance comes, we want to go further. It’s the biggest competition in Europe so we know it’s vey tough and as a group we have to be ready for the challenge.
‘For me, it’s something that’s in me and hopefully we can start from tomorrow by having a good game, a good result and then we’ll see how far we can go.’