Ahead of our Champions League opener against Zenit St Petersburg, Cesar Azpilicueta has explained why there won’t be any complacency from the Chelsea players after lifting the trophy last season.
We start our 2021/22 continental campaign at Stamford Bridge when we host the Russian side on Tuesday evening, knowing there is a target on our back due to our status as reigning European champions.
As our captain, Azpilicueta was the man who lifted the Champions League trophy in Porto and, while he obviously has fantastic memories from that night back in May, he feels it is vital he and his Blues team-mates put their status as holders to the back of their minds when they embark on this season’s group stage.
‘Of course it felt very special, everybody enjoyed that night in Porto a lot, but now there is a new challenge ahead of us,’ said the Spaniard. ‘We start from zero, like every team in Europe, so we know we need to fight hard to get to where we want to be and that starts from tomorrow. It’s going to be a difficult game.
‘We know that there is not a lot of room for mistakes, so from tomorrow we have to be focused. Whatever we did in the past was very special but that won’t give us any advantage for this season. We have the experience, we have the desire, we are hungry to go further and we have to show that tomorrow.’
Unfortunately, he knows first-hand how difficult defending a Champions League title can be, as not all his memories from the competition are so happy. He arrived in west London shortly after our first Champions League triumph, in 2012, and we were eliminated in the group stage during his first season with the Blues, despite being the holders.
However, as our current captain and the only remaining player in the squad from the 2012/13 season, he will now be sharing that experience with his younger team-mates to make sure we do better this time around and hopefully salvage something positive from those painful memories.
‘It was a very bad experience, quite painful, because I came from Marseille and in my three years there we reached a quarter-final and a last 16 of the competition. So when I arrived at Chelsea just after winning the Champions League, it was a tough moment to be out at the group stage after being the champions of Europe.
‘I’m the only one in the squad from that moment but I will try to help with this experience so that it doesn’t happen again, because we don’t get more points this season because we are the champions. We start from zero, it’s a new challenge, we face tough opponents already in the group stage and we have to be ready for it because it is our objective to fight for everything. So hopefully that experience will help us going forward.’
One thing that does remain from last season and will prove a big advantage during the current Champions League campaign, though, is the great team spirit and feeling of togetherness Thomas Tuchel’s squad clearly forged during our run to the 2021 final, as well as the victory itself.
With that in mind, Azpilicueta highlighted one of the moments from last season he feels played a big part in bringing the team together as a group and cementing the belief that we were a match for any side in Europe.
‘We faced Real Madrid and they were the kings of Europe for a long time, they have won the competition, they have players with great experience. The way we played, I think we were much better than them, we were more dangerous, we looked strong, but were only 1-0 up.
‘I knew we needed to score a second goal because I’ve seen many times Real Madrid pulling goals back at the end when everybody was feeling like they were dead, they can be very dangerous until the last second because they have experience.
‘The moment we scored that second goal, it felt like that was it. To be resilient and to score the second goal was the moment where I felt now we have overcome a great team like Real Madrid with their experience, because we are quite young lads, for a lot of them it was the first semi-final. I thought “now we feel strong”.
‘After that, in the final against Manchester City, the desire was incredible from everybody and the atmosphere we created during the preparations, the players, the staff, the ones that were lucky to play, the ones that didn’t play, everybody, that made the difference for me.’