Before taking some well-earned time off, Cesar Azpilicueta spoke to us at Cobham about the merits of a winter break, the key to the three big home fixtures when we return, and why he has found the net with such regularity recently…
Fifteen days in February with no match action takes a little getting used to for those accustomed to the relentless of English football. A pause in proceedings has long been the case abroad, though, and among our ranks of players with experience of midseason breaks is Cesar Azpilicueta. Having started his career in his native Spain and then moved to France, the captain is well placed to discuss the current interlude in Chelsea’s season.
In those countries the gap between fixtures is around a fortnight and takes in both Christmas and New Year. As Azpilicueta points out to the official Chelsea website, the festive period is sacrosanct in English football with plenty of games squeezed in. He says they remain some of the most enjoyable to play in, too.
‘It’s nice to have a few days to switch off,’ says Azpilicueta.
‘At the top level you need a high level of fitness, but also on the mental side you need to be focused and concentrated. With this break we have the chance to switch off for a few days, and get some fresh air. Then we will come back, do some work, and kick on for the last three or four months of competition with the power of the break behind us.
‘They did well to fit it in the middle of the season, which is not easy with the busy schedule. I will have some time with my family, and live without any rush or any travelling. It’s nice to spend time with them. They support me through the year, and at the weekends we are off travelling. For us to spend a nice time together is important.’
The unremitting nature of English football is matched by Azpilicueta, a near ever-present during his seven-and-a-half years at Stamford Bridge. The Spaniard has long proven he can cope without a break, but he does not believe he will be disadvantaged by opponents being fresher than usual at the back end of the season, pointing out he too will be stronger for the extra rest.
In the wake of some mixed recent form, has it come at a good time for Chelsea collectively?
‘You never know,’ replies Azpilicueta. ‘Sometimes when you are in good form you might not want to stop because you are in good rhythm and you have wins in a row. At the moment we are inconsistent, so hopefully we can get more consistent after the break and be ready for the next stage of the season.
‘It’s difficult to determine if this is a good time or not. It is what it is and we have to take it in the right way.’
Hot on the heels of the winter break are a trio of mouthwatering fixtures: Manchester United, Tottenham and Bayern Munich visit SW6 in the space of nine days. Azpilicueta says they represent an exciting, possible season-defining opportunity.
‘We haven’t made Stamford Bridge as solid as we would like this year. This is the best time to recover this solidity, with three big games in a row at home where we can show we are ready and able to make Stamford Bridge a tough place to come.
‘With the fans altogether we have had some disappointments at home altogether. When these three opportunities come we have to take them one by one, and hopefully we can build up on this. It’s key for the success of the season.’
Don’t rule out Azpi chipping in with a crucial contribution at some point this month. The 30-year-old has scored four goals for us this season, already a career-best tally for a single campaign. All have been predatory six-yard finishes - including the goal that kickstarted our epic comeback against Ajax – and he would have had two more to his name were it not for VAR.
‘I have improved at my movement attacking set-plays,’ analyses Azpilicueta.
‘For most of my career I was not going up for attacking set-plays, but a few years ago I started, and then you improve. At training I work on my movements, getting in to the right spaces.
‘I have a determination as well. To be hungry is very important, because I’m not the tallest. I’m pleased to score goals, even if it’s not my main job.’
It has proven a useful addition to Azpilicueta’s already extensive armoury, and provides further evidence of his persistence for perfection, winter break or not.
Tomorrow the skipper talks us through some of the captains he has played under, from John Terry to Iker Casillas...