Daily Mail


Master defender Cesar Azpilicuet­a on chasing the title, life under Conte . . . and THAT nickname

- By Pete Jenson @petejenson

NOTHING this season has gone quite as expected in the Premier League. Antonio Conte has outshone Pep Guardiola, N’Golo Kante has trumped Paul Pogba, and when Jamie Carragher picked out the league’s best defender at the turn of the year it was Cesar Azpilicuet­a he selected.

Ever- present for the league leaders, and the player who has played the most successful passes in 2017, the choice still looks good with just 10 games left.

Sitting down with Sportsmail ahead of the run- in there is satisfacti­on in that trademark pearly-white grin that while others talked the talk, it is Chelsea who have walked the walk.

‘It’s not so easy,’ he says when asked why Manchester City and Manchester United’s league campaigns have not lived up to expectatio­ns. ‘People think you can win the league before it’s even begun. They are two great clubs with two great coaches and big money.

‘They are great rivals but it’s hard to win this league. Every season I’ve been here teams have got better, the type of players that have come in from abroad has taken the level up, and the English have improved. You have to fight hard every single game.’

City play Chelsea on Wednesday and Manchester United host them 11 days later. Azpilicuet­a concedes no European football has been an advantage but points to the early signing of Kante and the rapid adaptation of Conte as so important in the title charge.

‘Kante was a vital piece of the puzzle and the club did fantastic work in signing him. And, what is more, it was early too,’ he says.

‘He had time to train with the team and adapt and that was very important. He has kept getting better. People forget this is only his second season. You have to admire what he is doing. His work-rate is incredible not just in games but every training session.’

Azpilicuet­a hails from northern Spanish town Pamplona. It is famous for the running of the bulls. Every summer, locals watch tourists re-enact the old tradition of sprinting away from 80-stone bulls without getting gored.

Super-fit from a very young age, Azpilicuet­a, 27, has always been a runner. He is famous at Chelsea for being the fitness freak who cannot spend more than a couple of hours on a sun-lounger before going for a run. No one at the club is fitter but he does have competitio­n now, and not just Kante.

Rumours Conte can keep up with the players are well-founded. ‘It’s true that he goes for a run every day,’ says Azpilicuet­a. ‘He still has that competitiv­e streak. He likes to keep himself very fit.’

Conte is Azpilicuet­a’s fifth manager in as many years. There was a bond with Jose Mourinho who famously said that with 11 Azpilicuet­as he would win the Champions League, but you sense the Spaniard feels Conte always puts Chelsea first.

‘At no time has he had any sort of demands. He has always helped the club. It’s difficult to adapt as quickly as he has but he pushed himself from the beginning with speaking English, with getting to know all the players.’

Conte made a very important decision in October when after two defeats he switched to 3-4-3.

Part of the motivation was a sense that the system would suit Azpilicuet­a. ‘At the start of the season things were 50-50,’ he admits. ‘We were winning but not convincing. The maanger was not completely satisfied, the team didn’t have the identity he wanted, but since the change of system we’ve got the results.

‘He asked me about playing in a three. I had no worries about it because I knew he would work with us on it, in training to the maximum. Antonio is very keen on working on tactics in every session, with the emphasis on being very together on the pitch. This system has got the best out of every individual.’

Of the dream-team back three with Gary Cahill and David Luiz he adds: ‘We complement each other. One does one thing with greater ease than the others. That gives us confidence as a unit.’

Barcelona have switched to a back three this season adding to speculatio­n he might be one of their summer targets. ‘Right now I am only thinking about Chelsea and I feel loved here,’ he says. ‘It’s flattering because it means you are playing well. I was not hearing those stories last season.

‘It comes from us being top but my objective here has always been to grow as a player and a person. I feel very well adapted to the city, to the country. I am comfortabl­e with the language, my family is very happy here.’

HE RISES at 7am each morning at his Cobham home to take his daughter Martina to school after a very British bowl of porridge for breakfast — you will not find anyone in Pamplona starting the day with oats and warm milk.

‘I’m not at eggs and bacon level but porridge was always on offer at the players’ canteen and I like to try new things,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I’m told, “Ah you’re not really Spanish, you’re British”. It’s because I’ve always felt very welcome, in the club, the dressing room, the country. I’m sure that there are more things that are very British that I do now than I ever would have thought.’ To some fans he will always be ‘Dave’ from those early days when Azpilicuet­a looked like the top line of a word search. He never did get round to watching the Only Fools

and Horses show the nickname is based on. ‘Some fans still call me Dave and our bus driver is Dave, so we’re two Daves, But teammates call me Cesar now,’ he says.

Content off the pitch, on it there is a desire to put right what went wrong last season. Winning the league would only be the start.

‘This the first year since I signed for Marseille in 2010 that I have not been in the Champions League and it’s hard,’ he says.

‘A bad season last season has left us out of it and so there is nothing we can do. But when I’m watching it at home, I want to be involved.

‘We are now in a good position although we know there are still 10 games to go. Palace is the first and we know it is not over. We have this gap at the top because we deserve to have it, but we have to go on fighting to finish the job.

‘From there the next step is to get back into European competitio­n and do as well as possible.’

There may even be more recognitio­n on its way. He will not lose too much sleep over whether he features in the team of the season but Carragher’s comments were still welcomed. ‘ It’s flattering when you get that kind of praise from ex-players who have the career behind them that he has. I’ve tried from day one to give the maximum and to adapt to the league and the culture and, because of that, I feel very integrated and very happy.’

Costing £7million in 2012 from Marseille, Chelsea can afford to smile too. It is hard to think of a deal that has given them better value for money.

 ?? VALENTINA ÁNGELA ?? Raising the bar: Cesar Azpilicuet­a is having a season to remember
VALENTINA ÁNGELA Raising the bar: Cesar Azpilicuet­a is having a season to remember

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