Henry Winter highlights Azpilicueta’s importance and why you can’t write off Chelsea

Henry Winter is the chief football writer for The Times and here, in an exclusive column for the official Chelsea website, the respected journalist reflects on last Saturday’s Champions League final victory over Manchester City, has high praise for skipper Cesar Azpilicueta and rates the Blues’ chances of silverware for next season…

On the return flight from Porto last weekend, plenty of Chelsea supporters showed me pictures from that epic Champions League evening at Estadio do Dragao, some shared by the club, others captured on their own phones.
Some will become screensavers, wallpapers, pictures on countless walls, and all images will stay in hearts and minds forever. It’s been a week since the Champions League final but the memories will last a life-time for Chelsea fans. Cesar Azpilicueta – or “Dave”, as they informed me – featured in many of their snaps and thoughts because of what he represents. Commitment to Chelsea.

For a reporter covering a match as intense and seismic as the 2021 Champions League final as it unfolds, racing to file copy against deadline, the story is often a blur of impressions. Often only with the passing of a few days, and certainly after two hours at 30,000 feet reflecting on the game with fans, does the full picture become clear. One of the main takes looking back on Porto is of the immense camaraderie in the Chelsea team, one that is particularly embodied by Azpilicueta.

Many of Chelsea’s strengths were evident and immediate and praised on the night, including Mason Mount’s touch and vision, Kai Havertz’s movement and finish, Reece James’s ferocious work ethic and N’Golo Kante, as always, covering so much ground and putting in one of the great sliding tackles to ever grace a Champions League final. Pictures reveal the confusion spreading across Kevin De Bruyne’s face as he tries to work out where the ball has gone, how it had been prised away from him by the Kante lever. The quality and effectiveness of Thomas Tuchel’s tactics and approach were already being saluted within minutes of the game getting underway. But what also became apparent was the sight of a team and club together, a unity of purpose encapsulated by Azpilicueta. He joined in Havertz’s post-match TV interview, his enthusiasm bubbling over. He talked to players’ families, making sure they were fine. He hugged and celebrated. Azpilicueta was at the heart of the Chelsea team and the Chelsea family.

Chelsea fans will never forget the sight of Azpilicueta consoling Thiago Silva as he hobbled from the field in the first half, helping the crestfallen centre-back as he fought back tears of pain and frustration over a groin injury. Thiago's own response was also a window into Chelsea's spirit. Rather than feel sorry for himself, the Brazilian spent the rest of the game shouting encouragement from the sidelines. That unity again. Back on the field, Azpilicueta was continuing to galvanise the team, and the desire of all in blue highlighted their togetherness.

Scrolling through the images of events after the final whistle revealed that collectively even more. Sergio Aguero stands there, stunned, hands on hips, heartbroken, as Kurt Zouma strides past, holding Kante aloft. On the touchline, Tuchel is mobbed by his backroom team, all letting out screams of joy. All that hard work, preparing to counter Manchester City, preparing their own team to defend with discipline and determination, was rewarded. All the team ethic they have instilled carried Chelsea through those testing last minutes, and that seemingly eternal, infernal stoppage time.

The fans’ pictures showed Azpilicueta collecting the European Cup, giving it a gentle kiss, descending from the stage and then running to the players, sharing the moment with them, hoisting it high. Some of the truest images of Chelsea’s togetherness came in front of the fans, a special reunion given so many months apart because of the pandemic and games played behind closed doors. Absence made the heart beat faster.

Back together, stands and dressing room. Azpilicueta pointed the Champions League trophy to the blue heavens again, this time up close and personal with the fans, lifted even higher when Olivier Giroud arrived to elevate his captain. One by one the players raised the trophy, Reece James, then Havertz stretching out his hands to get a go. Each player was cheered and serenaded by the fans. A club at one. In the background, Antonio Rudiger, Zouma, Giroud and Tammy Abraham were giving Kante the celebratory, affectionate bumps. Kante didn’t put a foot wrong in the game, and hardly put a foot on the ground after the final whistle!

Everywhere you looked in the fans’ and club’s photos, there were vivid signs of this togetherness. There was Tuchel and the beaming owner, Roman Abramovich, meeting for the first time. Not a bad first meeting, here’s the European Cup, boss! There was Thiago hugging Tuchel, fast forward a year from the image in Lisbon of their pair sharing the anguish of Paris Saint-Germain’s defeat in last season’s final. Now glory. Persistence rewarded.

As the evening wore on, more photographs emerged, from the players. Mount posted a shot of him in his earliest days at Chelsea, just a smiling speck of a kid in a blue strip to this, a man clutching the Champions League. James posted similar of his journey through the Academy. The joyous juxtaposed images are so important. They displayed what can be achieved by dedication, and by the support of family and coaches helping talent blossom. They were a wonderful advertisement of the Chelsea Academy. Like Azpilicueta, Mount and James show that togetherness binding Chelsea so closely.

Looking ahead, this gallery of pictures demonstrates why Chelsea will be such a threat over the sustained steeplechase of the Premier League next season. Talent and togetherness are a powerful combination.

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