Chelsea FC

Cesar Azpilicueta's quiet brilliance against Crystal Palace was the perfect West Brom response

Tom Gott
Apr 11, 2021, 11:00 AM GMT+1
Cesar Azpilicueta was the real star of Chelsea's win over Crystal Palace
Cesar Azpilicueta was the real star of Chelsea's win over Crystal Palace | Marc Atkins/Getty Images
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The narrative of Chelsea's 4-1 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday was clear. With goals from Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Kurt Zouma, the Blues got their top-four chances back on track after the West Brom nightmare.

There's no denying that it was probably Chelsea's best attacking performance since Thomas Tuchel's arrival, but crucially, it would not have been possible without some outstanding defensive work from the ever-reliable Cesar Azpilicueta.

Cesar Azpilicueta, Christian Benteke
Azpilicueta was excellent against Palace | Pool/Getty Images

Against West Brom, it was Chelsea's defending that was the biggest issue. If you're going to concede five goals against one of the league's most underwhelming attacks, it doesn't matter what you do at the other end of the pitch.

Fortunately for Tuchel, it looked like Azpilicueta took that personally.

Up against Wilfried Zaha all afternoon, the veteran Spaniard hardly put a foot wrong. He made one of the Premier League's scariest forwards look positively normal in a ruthlessly efficient performance which had Zaha stomping around in frustration for large parts of the game.

Wilfried Zaha, Mateo Kovacic, Cesar Azpilicueta
Zaha was visibly frustrated by Azpilicueta's persistence | Pool/Getty Images

Zaha was the man tasked with getting at Chelsea's vulnerable back line to ask them questions, but because of Azpilicueta, he never got the chance to. The captain simply suffocated him, recovered the ball and then let his creative team-mates strut their stuff.

Because Palace couldn't get their talisman on the ball, they had no attack. It was all Chelsea, and the likes of Havertz, Pulisic and Mount enjoyed all the freedom given to them by the subtle brilliance of Azpilicueta.

There was nothing glamorous about what the 31-year-old did, but that's exactly how Azpilicueta would have wanted it. He does not want the headlines and would prefer to see the younger stars shining. He has a job to do and he simply turns up to do it, even if the odds are against him.

Now 31, there's no denying that Azpilicueta is approaching the twilight of his career. We've seen him starting to lose some of his speed (which he never had in abundance anyway), and so someone like Zaha will have been licking their lips at the idea of facing him.

What Azpilicueta lacks in speed and physicality, he makes up for with outstanding technique. The Spaniard is a phenomenal defender who knows how to win the ball without relying on speed. He must position himself correctly, and he has learned how to do exactly that.

This performance continued the momentum Azpilicueta built up last time out against Porto. No Chelsea player made more blocks than his three in the Champions League quarter-final first leg, ensuring the Blues avoided any scares and got their groove back at the first time of asking.

Thomas Tuchel, Cesar Azpilicueta
Tuchel clearly has faith in the defender | Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It's no surprise that Azpilicueta is the only outfield player to start all of 12 of Tuchel's Premier League games. He's such a low-profile player, but the job he does is so important, and in a team full of a lot of big names and personalities, you need players like him to keep things together.

Azpilicueta rarely gets the credit he deserves, but it's subtle performances like this which have earned him a reputation as one of the Premier League's best one-on-one defenders.

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