Although Chelsea have become perennial Premier League contenders under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, the run to the 2016-17 title under the guidance of head coach Antonio Conte was still one of the most amazing feats in club history. Following a tenth-place finish the previous season and the lowered expectations of the beginning of a transition period with a brand new coach, almost nobody gave Chelsea a chance at the start of the season to win the title. But win the title we did anyway.
Despite that success, there are a similar few who are giving Chelsea any chance of retaining the title, expecting it to end up in the red half of the blue half of the city of Manchester once again. Chelsea made similar predictions look foolish last year, but retaining the title will probably be a tougher task, indeed. Just ask César Azpilicueta.
“The biggest challenge is obviously to retain the title. We performed to a very high level last season, but we know that it’s a fiercely competitive league and that it’s always even tougher the year after you’ve been crowned champions.”
“We’re working hard day in, day out to rise to that challenge. We took a lot of people by surprise last season. They didn’t have us down as contenders, but we showed what we’re made of by winning the Premier League title and reaching the FA Cup final. Now we’ve got new challenges ahead of us.”
The turning point of the last season was Conte’s seismic shift to the 3-4-3, a change that has spread across most of English football by now. That shift saw Azpilicueta change from left back to center back, having long stopped playing his initially ‘natural’ right back position. As usual, the transition was not a problem for Azpi, who turned out to be one of the best players in the league in his new role.
“I’m enjoying it a lot. For me, it was a new position, a new challenge. I had no doubts about it from the very first moment the coach told me he wanted me to play there. I thought I was capable of doing it and I’m always trying to improve and take in advice to keep on developing as a player.”
“It’s important to have that flexibility and be ready for it, because the coach can choose between different systems depending on our opponents. So it’s important to have confidence in order to be able to swap systems.”
“In a three-man defence you get more in touch with the ball and you participate more when distributing it. The way you attack is different too, because when you play as a full-back you do so in wide areas. You can cross the ball from closer to the box.”
In addition to the fresh challenge of retaining the domestic title, Chelsea are back in the Champions League as well after a year’s absence. That campaign starts on Tuesday, and Azpilicueta, who joined the Blues the summer after that famous night in Munich (alongside another Ligue 1 import in Eden Hazard), wants few things more than to bring “big ears” back to London this season.
“It’s the most prestigious competition in Europe, and every player wants to be part of it. I really enjoy playing in these games. After not being in the competition last year, it was important that we got back into it and we did that at the first time of asking. Now we’re relishing the challenge of making an impression on our return to the competition.”
“We’ll go step by step. I think our first step should be winning our group. If you take a look at the teams that have qualified, all of them can make life hard for you. That should encourage us to give it our all.”
“Winning the competition would mean everything. I think everyone always dreams of it and, of course, whenever we’re in this competition, we dream of doing just that.”
-César Azpilicueta; source: Chelsea FC
José Mourinho once joked that if we had 11 Azpilicuetas, we could win the Champions League. Alas, we only have 1. Still, as Qarabag come to town next week, it will be time to make this dream a reality. As we have shown in recent years, we are more than capable of overcoming any odds against us.
But first! Leicester City.