?It was a strangely entertaining game that Chelsea and Manchester United played out at Old Trafford on Sunday. Strange in the sense that it started off at a pace it would so obviously fail to keep up, leading to a dip in quality that had been expected beforehand, before rallying to a, if not fever pitch, then semi-serious temperature pitch finish.
It was messy, and occasionally mediocre, but in an endearing way. Yes, it may have highlighted the gap between the top two and the rest – as almost all weekends since February have done – but it showed that good old fashioned Premier League entertainment isn’t completely gone.
This was exemplified by the 22 players on the pitch, as well as the 14 on the bench, who, despite varying degrees of separation, all seemed primed for a Jose Mourinho run circa 2014. This is largely meant as an insult, although there were some ways in which those outdated characteristics came through for the better.
Like, for example, in the totemic performance of Cesar Azpilicueta.
It has often been cited/mooted that Mourinho’s dream team would be a collection of 11 Azpilicuetas, and it is performances like Sunday’s that show this to be likely true.
First of all, some qualifiers: Yes, there were some blemishes in the performance, but that’s part of the allure. Sure, he was held at arm’s length by Paul Pogba in the build up to Juan Mata’s opening goal, and could’ve perhaps done better in tracking Luke Shaw – though he was impeded by both Pogba’s imposing presence and Willian’s untimely attempt at doing so himself.
Yes, he was bodied into near-oblivion by Romelu Lukaku in one ill-fated shoulder-to-shoulder (which, in a sad turn of events, will likely be his sole online imprint from this game). But after each setback, he got back up, checked if the brunt-bearing photographer was ok, and kept fighting.
And, in place of his evidently waning strength, the ?Chelsea captain turned to his near-unending reserves of spirit, mixed in with just enough wide-eyed fearlessness-come-madness, to turn in a performance that itself seemed to turn back time.
To clarify, it’s not like the Spaniard hasn’t turned to these enduring attributes on occasion throughout the season, it’s just that this time it seemed to not only inspire himself to greater heights, but those around him as well.
After going a goal down with just 11 minutes on the clock, most Blues fans would’ve feared the worst – Maurizio Sarri’s side rarely seem to score goals away from home against the top six, and even rarer still do they salvage anything after yielding a goal themselves. In fact, the only goal they had scored previously on their away travels in these all-important clashes was the consolatory one in the 3-1 loss to Tottenham at Wembley.
But ‘Dave’ (the worst nickname in sport – Azpilicueta really isn’t that hard to say) wasn’t about to listen to the recent history books. And he wasn’t about to let the Red Devils run away with it. After failing to hear the faint thuds of Marcus Rashford’s tireless feet running in behind him on the 27th minute, he raced back in time to derail the forward’s one-on-one chance, harry him to the touchline and then poke the ball out with a well-timed challenge containing just the right levels of bite.
It signalled he wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and this seemed to spill over to the rest of his rearguard. Andreas Christensen came into the game for the injured Antonio Rudiger, and picked up the pace of the game nicely, while David Luiz reigned in his emotions and maintained his focus to deny Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side much of a sniff in that second period (corners/set pieces withstanding – this is still Chelsea we’re talking about after all).
From Lukaku’s shoulder to Nemanja Matic’s elbow, the 29-year-old left back turned right back turned centre back turned right back took a fair (and sometimes unfair) beating on occasion, but he refused to be bruised or bullied. Indeed, he was actually rarely troubled after those opening stages, but whenever he was called-upon he injected an energy into the fans and the team with a ruthless (but fair) physicality in the tackle.
A physicality born in his mind and his legs, with an intensity matched only by the fire in his eyes, and the desire in his heart. In an age where there seem to be far too many greens and purples (with all the connotations that those colours hold), ?Cesar Azpilicueta is truly a True Blue.