Sunday could see César Azpilicueta reach another milestone in blue.
The Chelsea captain will make his 400th appearance if he starts against Manchester City, almost a certainty with Reece James out with a hamstring injury. It is a superb achievement for the man they called Dave, and a deserved one too.
When Azpilicueta signed from Marseille in 2012, the £8 million fee proved to be an absolute bargain. Six trophies and nine seasons later, he has truly established himself within the Chelsea ranks, performing to a level of consistency defenders can only dream of.
But this season has been different.
Azpilicueta has fallen behind in the pecking order to James, who is now Chelsea’s definitive first choice at right-back. Hampered by injury in the summer, the Spaniard has made just seven league appearances all season- beforehand, he had an average of 34 games played out of a possible 38. To say this campaign has been like no other is an understatement.
For the man who, just 12 months earlier, was the first name on the team sheet, it comes as a shock to see him now languishing on the bench. But the handover to his young academy counterpart was inevitable, and had been since James was integrated into the first team.
The decision has paid off nonetheless, with James enjoying a stellar season as part of the new look back four. He will surely be there for the best part of a decade, set for an exciting career in blue. But that has left club captain Azpilicueta without vital minutes, a sorry sight and an alien one too.
It begs the question: what lies in store for Azpilicueta in 2021?
Truth be told, the 31-year-old will be aware of his future role at the club. For one, it seems unlikely that he will lose the captain’s armband. Azpilicueta is a true leader and the perfect choice for captain, as proven by his four seasons as skipper.
The responsibility extends further past wearing an armband: it is exercising leadership off the pitch in training and setting an example at the club. There is no reason for him to be stripped of his captaincy, with the experienced pair of Thiago Silva and Jorginho deputising when the Spaniard is not on the pitch.
Azpilicueta’s changing role as captain is no foreign sight to Chelsea either. John Terry experienced the same fate in his final season with the Blues, absent from Antonio Conte’s title-winning formula.
Gary Cahill suffered the same demise, where he was still the official captain during Azpilicueta’s first two years with the armband.
Now it is Azpilicueta’s turn to face the backend of his captaincy, albeit maintaining his status and role as skipper. It does not mean that he will never play, nor does it mean that the armband becomes a mere token. It is the most important challenge a captain can face: losing his spot and having to continue as captain from the bench.
Even if Azpilicueta is not a starter, Frank Lampard will be eager to keep him in his setup for as long as possible.
Having an experienced player among his ranks is always a valuable asset- just look at Terry in 2017 leading from the sidelines. The Spaniard still has a job to do, and if he can still positively contribute to Chelsea’s future, there is no valid reason to part ways with him.
Perhaps there is no better reason to keep Azpilicueta than for his impact on James. Who could ask for a better right-back pairing, than an eccentric, up-and-coming youngster, and a professional, valiant veteran? He is the perfect teacher and deputy to James, supporting his rise to the top and breakthrough into the starting eleven.
Above all in reasoning for keeping him at Chelsea, Azpilicueta is still a great player.
He has proved consistent in form and fitness over the last nine years, with more trophies in blue than injuries. It is easy to forget that Azpilicueta can be deployed on either side of defence, as a full-back or a wing-back, and will put in a solid shift wherever he plays. Captain consistent is one of Lampard’s finest assets, aging like fine Spanish wine.
Is it awkward seeing Chelsea’s captain and longest-serving active player condemned to the bench? Absolutely. But just because his onfield presence has changed, that is far from the case for his status and influence. James will continue to flourish – and it will be wonderful to watch – but Azpilicueta’s job is not yet over.
The 31-year-old still has work to do within the squad, nurturing the youngsters and helping the new boys gel in. The on-pitch leadership is in safe hands, with Silva providing the defensive management and Jorginho leading from the midfield. Azpilicueta can achieve so much more in west London, whatever his responsibilities are.
When Azpilicueta leads Chelsea out at Stamford Bridge, it will be a testament to his dedication, commitment and quality over the years. Whatever 2021 has in store for the skipper, Dave will always have a place in Chelsea folklore.
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