For all the talk about the plethora of young talent on show at Chelsea, it’s been the performance of arguably their most experienced player that has really helped to set the tone this season – Cesar Azpilicueta.
One such young starlet who’s burst onto the scene this season is Reece James, yet it has been the Spaniard who Frank Lampard has put most of his trust in this season.
It was telling on Sunday afternoon that Chelsea didn’t kick into gear until the half-time arrival of their captain – in the 1-0 FA Cup victory over Leicester.
The 30-year-old entered the fray in place of James, and quickly added some calm reassurance to what had been an underwhelming performance beforehand.
Yet it was not in just that performance that ‘Azpi’ showed his worth, as he has done so whenever called upon this season and throughout his whole Chelsea career.
Whether it be at left-back, right-back or even as part of a back three, the former Marseille defender has never failed to deliver and is arguably the most consistent defender that the Premier League has had in the last decade.
Following the arrival of Lampard as head coach last summer, there had been talk that the Spain international would simply not be able to meet his manager’s demands of an attacking full-back.
However, like he has always done, he has proved the doubters wrong. He may not be the quickest, tallest, strongest nor most creative player that Chelsea have ever had, but Blues fans should have no hesitation in placing him behind John Terry in their list of greatest Premier League defenders.
Not only an out-and-out defender, as his performance against Aston Villa showed last week, he can have just as much impact going forward as he can do at the back.
With Chelsea falling behind early, Azpilicueta played his part in both goals, delivering a wicked cross which Christian Pulisic duly tucked away into the net.
As the Blues claimed victory and marched on towards securing a top four spot, it was another indication of the impressive form the diminutive Spaniard has shown this season and particularly since the restart.
As Lampard has guided his young and inexperienced side through this transitional season, the Chelsea captain has been the glue holding it altogether, in his usual humble and unremarkable way.
Yet even after eight years at the club, there is a sense that he has never truly garnered the recognition he deserves, neither from his own fans nor from pundits.
All the talk this year has been about the young Englishman James and his unlimited potential, but don’t be too quick to write off ‘old’ Azpi.
He may be nearing 31, but he still has so much to offer the Blues and the Premier League – and is no doubt spurred on further by having James hot on his tail.
As has probably been said before, real life football is not like the virtual world of FIFA, players do not simply wilt once they enter their thirties – just look at James Milner.
It must be a brilliant position nonetheless to be in for the manager, having such an experienced player to guide a hugely talented young star.
Yet, while we can all admit that James is the future, right now it is his captain that is Chelsea’s most important player and who is rightly getting the nod at right-back at this moment in time.
That is not to say that Blues supporters should not be excited about their 20-year-old full-back, but they should also not ignore the continued brilliance of their two-time Premier League winning defender.
To have both players around is a dream scenario, yet it will be Azpilicueta who remains the key man to help usher in Lampard’s new wave of young talent.