Four months have passed since Chelsea slumped to defeat at Leicester, the nadir in another turbulent campaign and the trigger for another managerial casualty.
‘A difficult night,’ recalled captain Cesar Azpilicueta. ‘The result was bad but the feeling we all had was maybe worse, with the way we performed. We were going downwards in the previous two months. That game was bad.
‘We could feel we were not playing at our level. But the reaction from the team was a big one. I think we are now in a position we wouldn’t have believed possible that day.’
Cesar Azpilicueta will lead Chelsea in Saturday’s FA Cup final with Leicester City at Wembley
Azpilicueta (right) was benched by Frank Lampard (left) when Chelsea last lost to the Foxes
These are the rhythms of life under Roman Abramovich. Within a week of losing at the King Power Stadium, when Leicester went top of the Premier League and Chelsea sank to eighth, Frank Lampard was out and Thomas Tuchel was on his way in.
On Saturday as the teams collide in the FA Cup final, the Londoners are revived, their latest head coach launching their latest fresh start with a return to a back three, a policy of inclusion and lots of hugs.
‘He shouts as well,’ said Azpilicueta. ‘Communication is not only hugs. It’s also to shout and correct mistakes. He is very passionate, always trying to improve and learn things, always trying to pick up the details.
‘He is very specific. At the highest level, every metre can make a difference. You need everybody on the right spot every time so he’s very active, very expressive.’
Azpilicueta is now an integral part of Thomas Tuchel’s (right) reborn Chelsea side this season
There are echoes of Antonio Conte, who won the Premier League and FA Cup in two years at Chelsea. He was demonstrative, played with a back three and used meticulous video analysis to ensure players were precisely where he thought they should be. Although perhaps without Tuchel’s approachability.
‘Antonio was very active as well,’ said Azpilicueta. ‘Different personalities, of course, but both very active, lead the game from the touchline, giving instructions.’
The versatile Chelsea skipper has seen this all before. In nine years, he has played under eight different managers. He was signed as a right back under Roberto Di Matteo, converted into a left back by Jose Mourinho and deployed as one of three central defenders by Conte.
Azpilicueta has been asked to play in several different roles since moving to west London
‘That was maybe the most challenging time,’ he said. ‘A new position — in England, where we know the history of centre backs. Normally big, strong, a different kind of football. I spent a lot of time on videos, improving because I knew I had to be ready. You have to be open. A different manager can ask something different from you and you want to be successful.’
Azpilicueta has adapted and survived. Even thrived. He reverted to orthodox right back under Maurizio Sarri. Lampard made him captain but left him out when Reece James emerged.
That night in Leicester, he stewed on the bench, unused. Under Tuchel he is firmly ensconced in the team, most often on the right of a back three. Occasionally as a wing-back. Always setting the standards and leading by example. ‘Chelsea has a DNA of winning,’ said Azpilicueta.
The Spaniard is looking for his seventh trophy with Chelsea during Saturday’s FA Cup final
‘Since I came here in 2012, I felt the demand of winning trophies. You jump into a dressing room which had just been crowned champions of Europe and you see big personalities like Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic. You learn from them every day. You ask yourself how they win so many trophies. Then you see why because in every training session they give their best, in every game they want to win.
‘I came from Osasuna, where we were fighting against relegation. Away from home, we would win two or three games a season and if we got a draw, we were happy.
‘It was a big step moving to Marseille where they demand titles. We won trophies but it was not the same, we were not asked to win the Champions League.
Azpilicueta joined Chelsea in 2012 when they had just won the FA Cup and Champions League
Azpilicueta’s Chelsea managers
Roberto Di Matteo
(March 2012 – November 2012)
(November 2012 – May 2013)
(June 2013 – December 2015)
(December 2015 – May 2016)
(July 2016 – July 2018)
(July 2018 – June 2019)
(July 2019 – January 2021)
(January 2021 – present day)
‘When you come to Chelsea, you have to win every single game in every competition and that’s a huge challenge. You do not accept draws away from home. It’s not the way Chelsea works.’
Azpilicueta has won six major trophies at Chelsea and has been close to more. Last year’s FA Cup final defeat against Arsenal, when he gave away the penalty to concede an equaliser and then limped off injured, still rankles.
‘You don’t need extra motivation in the FA Cup final but when you have a bad feeling you want to come back. The game was in our hands and we let it go. It was the same when we lost the final in 2017. We came back the following year and won the Cup. I hope this year we can replicate that,’ he said.
At 31, Azpilicueta feels the responsibility to light the fire inside new signings, such as Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, in the same way Lampard, Terry and Co inspired him aged 22.
‘There is not a lot of time,’ he said. ‘We don’t know how many opportunities we have to win trophies. That’s what it’s all about. When we’re not having a good season we have a change of managers. It’s all about winning. We had this situation this season. We were not at our best, not at our level. And now we have in front of us an amazing opportunity to win two trophies.’
The FA Cup and the Champions League, the two trophies that were gleaming in the cabinet when he first walked in. It would be a nice way to complete the circle.
Azpilicueta conceded a penalty and came off injured in last season’s FA Cup loss to Arsenal
Azpilicueta came off the Wembley pitch in tears last season, will he be happier on Saturday?