After an indifferent season for the club, there were many debates among Spain fans regarding which Chelsea players should be called up by La Roja for Euro 2016. Diego Costa ended up missing out, while Pedro and Cesc Fabregas were both included by Vicente del Bosque. But there was no doubt about Cesar Azpilicueta.
Versatile, committed and effective, the defender has made himself important to every single one of his coaches and is a solid presence at the back for both Chelsea and Spain. And just a few hours before the champions start the defence of their European Championship crown against Czech Republic in Toulouse, he took time out to speak to Goal in an exclusive interview.
You spoke to Goal in one of your very first call-ups to the national team. Now you are a regular and an unquestioned member of this squad for Euro 2016. What has changed for Azpilicueta in this time?
“Three years have gone by. Whether you like it or not, you have to assume more responsibility in that time. I came into a group that had been together for so long. Experience helps. And also, the disappointment of the World Cup. I played two games there and we went through some difficult moments. They help you to grow and to see that not everything is easy, that you have to fight. There are ups and downs sometimes in football, but you have to pick yourself up and get stronger."
Nevertheless, you are always there: you average around 40 games a season and even after this difficult year at Chelsea, you are at the Euros. What is your secret? How do you do it?
"The secret is work, work, work. I can't conceive football any other way. I conceive it as a team sport. The most important thing is to help the team win titles and do my little bit. This year at Chelsea we didn't achieve what we wanted to. It was difficult, although it is when I have played the most."
What happened at Chelsea during the Jose Mourinho era for things to end up as they did?
“That's football. After winning the league and the cup the year before, breaking records, leaders from start to finish, the third season together... But we didn't start well, the results wouldn't come and in football that's what's important. We all hoped to have a great season, because it was the same group. But football is like that."
Mourinho said that "with 11 Azpilicuetas you could win the Champions League". What could you say about him now that he is going to coach one of Chelsea's big rivals?
"I have great memories of him. I will focus on all the positives. I learned so much. Now he is going to be a rival and he will make things difficult for us."
At Chelsea you haven't got the No.2 shirt yet, but with Spain you have inherited it after wearing 22 when Raul Albiol was in the squad. What does the number mean to you?
“Well, I made my debut with the No.40 at Osasuna. High numbers! But when I turned professional, I took the No.2 shirt and I have worn it ever since whenever I have been able to. It's true that Albiol had it, but in the last few matches I have been able to wear it and I like it a lot."
So it's not superstition?
“No! Well, at Chelsea I wear the No.28. But it was the only one they had left!"
Talking of the defence, it seems it is one of the strongest areas for Spain looking at the form of all of the players. Has Del Bosque spoken to you to tell you what he expects from you and in what position?
“Spain is an attacking team because we look to control the ball and the game. But in the biggest competitions in which titles have been won, we have been the team that has conceded the least. And that's fundamental. As defenders we have a bigger responsibility, of course, but the boss demands it from all of us as a team. It's a team sport and we all have to help in both facets: defence and attack. Personally, I hope to give my maximum to the group. We have been training hard for three weeks and I will be at my peak for whatever the coach needs."
Have you spoken to your former team-mate Petr Cech ahead of the opener against Czech Republic?
“No, I haven't spoken to him. Cech is the leader of his national team, along with Tomas Rosicky. Everyone knows Petr's story - at Chelsea and now at Arsenal. And he helped me a lot at Chelsea."
You are good friends with Eden Hazard. Have you spoken to him about the Euros and about Belgium's chances?
"Yes, we have spoken. They have shown they have a great team, a very young team that have had some problems with injuries. But they are a team that, if they show all their potential, will be very dangerous."
“Man, we are the current champions of Europe and we are no less than any other team. We know how football is and we suffered that in Brazil, but we have our weapons and we hope to exploit them to the maximum."
If Spain got to the quarter-finals or the semi-finals, you could be back in Marseille, where you used to play. Would that be special for you?
"Yes. Because it would mean we are in the final stages of the competition - and because I would be back in Marseille. It would be special to play at a ground where I played, which was under construction then but it is renovated now. Everyone has told me great things about the new stadium and it would mean a lot to play there later in the competition. Let's hope!"
If Spain keep on advancing, you could meet up with Chelsea's next coach Antonio Conte. Have you had the chance to speak to him yet?
"If we end up playing Italy that will be a good sign as well. Conte is focused on his national team because he has a big challenge ahead, like all of us at Euro 2016. He is a coach that everyone in London is looking forward to working with, for his CV and also for his way of working. All of the players are excited about working with him."
So Chelsea are in good shape for 2016-17?
“Yes. I am confident. There hasn't been any movement yet, but the club are doing all they can and with the new coach we are going to try our best to return to the top after a difficult season. At Chelsea we only think about winning."
After last season, there have been rumours that you will move to Athletic Bilbao or even Barcelona. What can you say? Where would you like to play?
“Right now I'm focused on the national team and the Euros. That's my priority. I am excited about that. I have a contract with Chelsea first of all. It's flattering to be linked with other clubs, but I'm only thinking about playing football right now."
Last of all, out of curiosity - where were you when Spain won the European Championship in 2008 and in 2012?
"Well, 2008 I remember fondly because it was the first one. Those penalties in the quarter-finals were a point of inflection in the history of Spain. It was a moment of great joy. In 2012, I was playing for Marseille and I was keen to make my debut for the national team. It was something historic. What would I give? I don't know. I haven't made any bets yet, but I would give anything to win it..."