Now that the match is over and won, we can all admit how massive the three points up for grabs on Wednesday were. Had Chelsea lost, we would’ve no doubt played down the significance of the occasion, and told ourselves that everything’s fine and the cushion is still a happy four points. Fortunately, there’s no need for such handwaving.
Wednesday’s match wasn’t the best or the prettiest performance, but in stark contrast with Saturday’s loss, it was an efficient performance when it mattered the most. Even if Eden Hazard needed a fortunate rebound to save his saved penalty kick.
With the 2-1 win, Chelsea have moved one step closer to the title and maintained a comfortable seven-point lead over Spurs, who almost Spurs’d it up against Swansea City before grabbing three late goals to keep pace as well. At this point of the season, it’s all about mental strength, as Azpilicueta reflected upon after the win.
"It was a massive game after the defeat on Saturday. I’m sure our rivals were waiting for us to drop that mental strength and lose points again. We feel the pressure because we know it’s only a month and half to the end of the season and we are in the best position to be in. We were disappointed to lose three points at home to Palace but we recovered and coped really well."
"We came back in a strong way against a really tough team. We showed our character and we worked really hard. Maybe it wasn’t our best game but what matters now are the points."
"Against Palace, we played better than in a lot of games that we won this season but we lost so it’s just important to get the points no matter how you play."
Despite getting unlucky against Palace, Chelsea have not let the pressure of being favorites affect them too much. Antonio Conte seems to be doing a fantastic job keeping the squad grounded, while most players no doubt remember the run-in from two years ago and can draw upon those experiences. The squad is full of winners already, many of whom are serial winners or are about to pick up that habit.
"We came from eighth position when we lost against Arsenal [in September]. We have been working really hard to be top but it’s true, nothing is won yet. There are eight games to play, and we have the semi-final of the FA Cup, so at this stage, we haven’t got any silverware and we have to continue to fight for it."
"At the moment, all of the teams would like to be in our position so we know that every team are waiting for us to drop points but we have to be strong enough to keep the lead and to finish the season in this position."
Azpilicueta himself has been with the team since 2012, winning the Europa League and a couple domestic trophies since. In that time, he has established himself as one of the most dedicated, hard working, and versatile players in the squad, and he’s continued to show off those qualities in this game as well.
"I don’t have any problem. I always try to adapt as quickly as possible. The manager told me to start right wing-back and I tried to do my best, then he decided I should go into the back three, so there is no problem."
"When I play with the national team, I play right-back in a back four, but for the last few months for my club I have played in the back three. I’ve worked really hard with the manager and to get the results we are getting is important."
"I saw [Antonio Conte's] comments about me. It pleased me because I try to train hard to be available for the manager and I’ve learned a lot from him. When we switched the system [to a back three] it was new for all of us and we worked really hard, starting with him."
"To come to England and in the first year to be in first position with a chance of winning two trophies shows the manager is doing an amazing job."
-César Azpilicueta; source: Daily Express
Chelsea’s biggest improvement this season has come in terms of playing for each other and working together as a team. All involved deserve plenty of praise — including the man with the plan, Antonio Conte — but as one of the steadiest and quietly most impressive performers all season, Azpilicueta should get plenty of recognition as well.
There are eight games to go, plus at least one more in the FA Cup. The players know what’s at stake. Now we just have to finish the job.