After discussing the positives of 2019/20 and where we need to improve in part one of our exclusive interview with Cesar Azpilicueta, today the Spaniard reflects on being club captain during the strangest of seasons and assesses his evolving relationship with boss Frank Lampard ahead of his ninth campaign at Stamford Bridge…
When Gary Cahill departed west London last summer and the Chelsea captaincy became vacant, it was an obvious choice for incoming head coach Frank Lampard to hand the armband to his former team-mate Cesar Azpilicueta, a determined defender who trains as he plays and leads by example every day.
The honour was not entirely new for the Spaniard, who had led the Blues out at the Europa League final in Baku in the last game of 2018/19, but the responsibilities of acceding the position on a full-time basis are somewhat different to that of a one-off game.
Read: Part one of our exclusive Cesar Azpilicueta interview
That Azpilicueta has stepped up as the face and voice of the dressing room and the club during this most extraordinary of seasons deserves even more credit.
‘First of all, I’m very proud to be the captain of Chelsea and to be involved with all the duties that we need to take care of on and off the pitch,’ says the skipper as we continue our exclusive post-season chat.
‘This season has been one of the strangest in football history with a global pandemic and a lot of issues to solve. There were times where we didn’t know when we were coming back, we had all our families to take care of so just from my position I tried to help everybody to stick together. I always tried to help everybody and do my best because the situation was difficult.’
It is fair to say that the Chelsea captain has more than played his part in the response to the coronavirus pandemic, donating time and money to buy equipment to various Chelsea Foundation initiatives, as well as school meals to the children of key workers in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Matters on the football pitch seem trivial in comparison but he’s had to step up in his day job too, helping guide his team-mates through the restart and to their target of Champions League qualification.
‘I’m a captain that’s never happy and I always want more,’ he continues. ‘When we lose or we don’t perform the way we should then obviously I feel responsibility for that.
‘Sometimes it’s been the case that I could play better myself so you have to be honest with yourself and be humble to assess where you can do better and push from there to be better.
‘When I lose a game, I’m always looking forward to playing the next one and to being early for training the next day. This is the mentality we must have; the hunger and ambition to not be happy with what we have done in the past but have a determination to keep it going and to be fighting at the top every day.’
Despite having won six major honours in his eight seasons in SW6, Azpilicueta is clearly driven to achieve more, a relentless quest for improvement that he shares with his manager. There are clear similarities between him and Lampard as players – practically ever-presents, never content, always striving for more – and that relationship has developed during the ups and downs of a turbulent campaign.
‘I have never had a manager who was my team-mate before but it was very natural for us both,’ explains Azpi. ‘We respect each other. The positions are different because a few years ago we were team-mates fighting on the pitch to win and now he’s the manager and I’m the captain but we still try to give our best and fight for trophies.
‘It’s the same with the other coaching staff. I know all of them from the Academy and we have had different relationships but now all together in the first team we are trying to work together and I try to help them as much as I can to get the results that we want.’
A season of highs and lows ended in disappointing fashion for the Blues and for Azpilicueta on a personal note. Beaten by Arsenal in the FA Cup final, the defender was forced off early with a hamstring injury sustained just after he had conceded a penalty.
The 30-year-old will receive treatment throughout this brief summer rest period and hopes to be back to start pre-season as normal with the rest of his team-mates later this month.
‘I am hoping to be fit for the start of pre-season,’ he reports. ‘I’ve been lucky enough not to have had many injuries in my career but unfortunately it happened against Arsenal.
‘I’m working with the physio now with a programme from the club, while also spending a bit of time with my family, but mostly training and working on the pitch to recover. If everything goes well, I will be ready to start pre-season as normal.’
Azpilicueta is clearly hopeful of being fully-fit for the start of the new season, his ninth at Stamford Bridge and one in which he can achieve some significant individual milestones. If he plays a similar number of games to previous campaigns, he will break into the top 10 all-time Chelsea appearance-makers, an accomplishment he claims was not even on his radar when he joined the club from Marseille eight summers ago.
‘When I arrived at Chelsea, I couldn’t imagine the amount of games that I would play,’ he admits. ‘I never put a target on myself. I just always try to be available for the manager, to train hard and to play hard whenever I have the chance so to reach this amount of games is amazing and it’s something I’m really proud of.
‘I always felt the confidence from the managers, from the club and from my team-mates but I don’t like to look behind too much. I want to reach more targets, give my best every day and be proud to be a part of this club.’
Finally, Azpi finishes with a message to the Chelsea supporters.
‘We have missed the fans a lot these past few months,’ he says. ‘They are so important for us and hopefully we can have them back as soon as possible so we can share all of these moments with them.’