Having represented his country 55 times at youth level, Cesar Azpilicueta was expected to be Spain’s right-back for years to come, but the Chelsea defender’s reinvention on the opposite flank has not only put paid to that realisation but also his place in La Roja’s line-up ahead of his prime years.
Azpilicueta needed little time to succeed Jose Bosingwa as Chelsea’s first-choice right-back after his arrival in the summer of 2012 from Marseille. He went on to appear 48 times under Roberto Di Matteo and then Rafa Benitez, before a fateful injury to Ashley Cole prior to the Blues’ Champions League match against Schalke in October 2013 saw the Spaniard switch to the left. Suffice to say, the 26-year-old has never looked back in what was once a makeshift position.
Yet, it is this versatility which has played against the Pamplona native on the international scene. In the time Azpilicueta has transformed into a top-level left-back, the right-sided likes of Juanfran and Mario Gaspar have established themselves in the Spain set-up, while it would take a monumental collapse in form for Jordi Alba to be dethroned on the left. Furthermore, his reputation was tarnished by having started both of La Roja’s opening two defeats at the 2014 World Cup, both of which condemned the then-holders to a humiliating exit from the group stage.
Worse yet, Azpilicueta has formed a significant part of the worst Premier League title defence in history, with Jose Mourinho’s champions being relegated to chumps in a matter of months and the former Real Madrid boss losing his job last December. And despite Guus Hiddink’s best efforts to steady the ship, the West Londoners are destined for a mid-table finish and this season and no European football next.
To Azpilicueta’s credit, however, he has avoided the fans’ wrath, something which can’t be said about his countrymen at Stamford Bridge. Although never one to steal headlines, the stopper is at the very least a committed performer who strives to get the basics right first and foremost – a characteristic which impressed Mourinho. “Azpilicueta is the kind of player I like a lot,” the Portuguese said. “I think a team with 11 Azpilicueta’s probably could win the [Premier League] because football is not just about the pure talent.”
His switch to left-back has not been without its problems, though. A common issue with full-backs who play on the opposing side to their preferred foot, Azpilicueta has generally offered not nearly enough in terms of an attacking outlet, a problem which has been exacerbated by the Chelsea’s starting left winger Eden Hazard – another right-footed player – continually looking to roam inside. Still, he can pride himself in being one of the world’s best defensive wide stoppers, if not the best.
Looking ahead to Euro 2016, Azpilicueta is virtually guaranteed a place in Vicente del Bosque’s 23-man squad thanks to a combination of his age, position, playing style and club, and while a starting berth looks to be out of his reach as it stands, he will be mightily grateful to retain both the Coach’s and his country’s trust in true Azpi fashion.