When Spain and Italy walk out at Wembley tomorrow evening there will be familiarity all around. This will be the fourth consecutive European Championship in which two of the continent’s big hitters have met, La Roja’s head coach Luis Enrique will be seeking revenge for being elbowed in the face in defeat at the 1994 World Cup and many of these players are accustomed to sharing the same pitch.
No one will be more familiar with the surroundings than Cesar Azpilicueta though. Wembley’s vast confines will not make the occasion any more daunting for the Chelsea captain who has experienced his fair share of joy and misery at the national stadium.
Azpilicueta has won one and lost three FA Cup finals there, split a pair of League Cups on top of semi-finals and played in games when Tottenham Hotspur briefly called the stadium home. The 31-year-old has also been twice with Spain, in 2016 and ‘18, but the fact he will be in action tomorrow night, on the right of Spain’s defence, is remarkable considering he only made his first appearance for almost three years in the final group game against Slovakia less than a fortnight ago.
Yet Enrique has been quick to realise the importance of such a leader in a team that has been riding a steep learning curve as the tournament has progressed. While much of the neutrals’ attention has fallen on Pedri, Barcelona’s latest teenage sensation, and Alvaro Morata’s travails in front of goal, the introduction of Azpilicueta has been invaluable.
Spain had drawn their opening two games. They bossed possession without ever looking dangerous and seemed to be heading out with a whimper. Then Azpilicueta was drafted in along with Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, who had missed the first two games due to coronavirus, and the pair have offered composure and knowhow for a team that seems to have figured out how to execute Enrique’s gameplan just in time.
There was even a first international goal for Azpilicueta in the round of 16 win against Croatia last Monday. But aside from that effort, the past two weeks have been a story of his measured, authoritative leadership and delivering the work of a man happy for those around him to take credit once the collective are benefiting.
Azpilicueta may not be wearing the armband but he was there just before the penalty shootout win over Switzerland on Friday, offering last-minute advice in that forceful yet calm manner that those in West London have long become accustomed to. Many at Chelsea, a club where conflict resolution can be a crucial asset, believe he is capable of being a politician or diplomat.
Another fascinating aspect to the first semi-final, adding to the feeling of familiarity, will be the fact Azpilicueta is likely to spend some time battling it out with clubmate Emerson Palmieri, the Italy left back who will be drafted in because of Leonardo Spinazzola rupturing an achilles versus Belgium on Friday and could end up being transferred from the Bridge later this summer.
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Emerson has barely featured under Thomas Tuchel but asked about that duel in an interview with the Guardian published this morning, Azpilicueta’s diplomacy shone through. “He’s a clear example of the strength of the group at Chelsea, the togetherness,” Azpilicueta said. “Despite playing very little he has always contributed, he keeps a positive attitude and trains hard, awaiting his chance. He scored an important goal against Atletico Madrid. The group makes the difference; that carried us to the Champions League.”
Denying the Azzurri’s other Chelsea player may be the key to whether Spain progress. Jorginho has had an exceptional tournament in the middle of Roberto Mancini’s dynamic midfield three, leading to calls he should be on the Ballon d’Or shortlist. For Azpilicueta it is no surprise.
“If we limit his involvement, we’ll have more chances to qualify for the final,” he told Sky Italia over the weekend. And maybe if Spain can win the next two he will even give himself some credit when joining a short list of players to do the Champions League and European Championship double.