International

Chelsea defenders go face to face in race to become a ‘double champion’

Travel back over the past two months and there were times when it looked highly unlikely Cesar Azpilicueta would be in direct opposition to Emerson Palmieri in a Euro 2020 semi-final.

That is no reflection on the quality of the Spain and Italy teams. No one is unduly surprised those nations so steeped in success in tournaments have made it this far. However, when Azpilicueta was named in the Spain squad for the tournament at the end of May, it was the Chelsea skipper’s first call-up since 2018.

Meanwhile Emerson, who was handed his Italy debut by Roberto Mancini that same year, was selected to start international games over the past year but the main other player competing for that left-sided spot, Leonardo Spinazzola of Roma, won selection for the final Euros warm-up friendly, retained his place for the first two group-stage games and impressed.

Emerson came in for the third game against Wales with qualification already assured for the Azzurri and that was it. At least that was it until Spinazzola suffered an Achilles injury near the end of their quarter-final win over Belgium and Emerson was called into action to replace him at left wing-back.

There he is widely anticipated to stay for tonight’s meeting with Spain and although Azpilicueta’s return to the Spanish fold was initially as an unused substitute, for their third group game in which they needed a result after two draws, the 31-year-old was drafted in. Spain won 5-0 , Azpi remained and even scored a goal in the next match, the 5-3 thriller against Croatia.

So down one flank of the Wembley pitch today, two Chelsea colleagues look set to go head to head and in an interview, Azpilicueta has spoken about the presence of Emerson on the big stage after so few club games last season.

‘He’s a clear example of the strength of the group at Chelsea, the togetherness,’ Azpilicueta has said.

‘Despite playing very little he has always contributed, he keeps a positive attitude and trains hard, awaiting his chance.

‘He scored an important goal against Atletico Madrid [in our Champions League last-16 second leg]. The group makes the difference. That carried us to the Champions League.’

With Jorginho also in the Italy side and in the other semi-final, Andreas Christensen taking on England who have Mason Mount, Reece James and Ben Chilwell in their squad, it is not lost on our captain that at least one Chelsea player will be adding a Euro 2020 winners’ medal to the prestigious one he picked up in Porto a little over a month ago.

‘We’re the only club that will have a double champion, that’s true,’ he said.

‘Around this time of year, people always start talking about it, but what matters is the team.

‘Winning the Champions League was lovely, now we have a nice challenge with the Euros, another opportunity.’
 

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