Cesar Azpilicueta

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Azpilicueta: ‘Champions League is where Chelsea belong’

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Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta is happy his side earned its spot in the knockout round with a convincing 2-1 win over Lille that flattered to deceive the French visitors to Stamford Bridge.

Azpilicueta scored what would stand as the decisive goal, as Chelsea finished second to Valencia and clinched a place in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16.

[ MORE: Match recap | Pulisic Watch ]

“Champions League is where Chelsea belong,” Azpilicueta said. “We know it was a tough group. Last year’s semi-finalists Ajax have been knocked out.”

The Blues opened the group stage with a 1-0 home loss to Valencia, then beat Lille before taking four fo six points from Ajax.

A 2-2 draw with the eventual group winners in Spain meant Chelsea needed a win in London.

“We had to fight and recover after losing against Valencia at home in our first game. But now we are in the last 16 the focus has to switch back to the Premier League until the competition starts again next year.”

Manager Frank Lampard is happy his side progressed to the next stage, but didn’t like that the Blues finished poorly to leave the door open for Lille.

“With the young players we have in this side there will be bumps in the road,”  Lampard said, via the BBC. “I push them and can be quite hard on them, setting the high standards I want to see them reach, but at the same time I have to be patient. Today was a sign of how much work we still have got to do. It should have been a calmer finish to the game and that is the biggest thing, for me, that we need to improve.”

Chelsea hosts Bournemouth at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday.

Chelsea controls Lille to clinch UCL knockout round berth

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Chelsea advanced to the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds as the second team out of Group H after a 2-1 defeat of Lille at Stamford Bridge that flattered the visitors.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Tammy Abraham and Cesar Azpilicueta scored for Chelsea on a rain-splattered night in London, with Lille scoring via the Blues’ old friend Loic Remy.

Valencia beat Ajax in the other Group H match to send last season’s semifinalists to the Europa League.


Three things we learned

1. Uneven finishing almost undoes Blues: Make no mistake about the fact that Chelsea was in total control of this match right up until the point they looked at the scoreboard following Loic Remy’s 78th minute strike. Chelsea’s two goals came from a remarkable nine shots on target, and this could’ve been over long before any lone concession put the result in jeopardy. It happens to youngish teams, sure, but jeopardy came out of almost nothing, truly.

2. All roads lead to Abraham: You can read more about Pulisic’s strong day here, but he was one of three or even four players who drove Chelsea to so many of the above chances. Pulisic’s chemistry with Kovacic is a very real, but both joined Willian and N’Golo Kante in bamboozling the Lille backs.

3. Well, give the keeper some credit: Mike Maignan was Lille’s captain at age 24 in a Champions League match, and nothing he did made the arm band anything other than fitting. Six saves — four from inside the box — joined a clearance, a high claim, and two aerial duels won in making for an impressive afternoon.

Man of the Match: Kovacic, who won nearly duel he entered and barely put a pass wrong.


The match started under heavy rain, both sides adapting to the slick ball and pitch.

Tammy Abraham couldn’t find Pulisic with an early flick, and the American winger spun a left-footed shot wide of the far post in the 10th minute.

Emerson Palmeiri ripped wide of the goal and then Abraham did the same after an N’Golo Kante shot was blocked into his path.

Pulisic played a big role in Chelsea’s breakthrough, dribbling across the 18 before finding Willian, who drove the touch line and cut back for Abraham’s tap-in.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

It was 2-0 before long, Azpilicueta darting to the front post to turn a header home off a corner kick.

Great header, bad defense here:

The Blues were superior in nearly every moment of the match, with Willian and Pulisic very much at the forefront. Lille did a decent job of keeping them from truly dangerous positions, and Abraham had a little trouble finding his finish when the duo found him.

Jonathan Bamba cued up Remy’s 78th minute goal, as Frank Lampard and his men suddenly had a match to play.

Azpilicueta probably lost his Man of the Match nod when he allowed the Bamba cross to get through, though it was admittedly clever work.

Lampard: Win in Ajax ‘bit of a blueprint’ for Chelsea

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Frank Lampard wasn’t happy with his team’s lack of finish in a 1-0 defeat of Ajax in Amsterdam on Wednesday, but he liked most everything else.

Chelsea out shot Ajax 16-10 on the night and broke through late when super subs Christian Pulisic and Michy Batshuayi teamed up for a late goal.

The win allowed the Blues to join Ajax on six points in Group H of the UEFA Champions League.

“We’re entitled to be excited about how we played, and it’s a bit of a blueprint for us,” Lampard said. “The work of the wingers, midfielders, full-backs, outstanding. I could go through them all. No excuses from them now to dip from that.”

Chelsea has now won all six of its matches since falling to Liverpool on Sept. 22, outscoring its opponents 17-3.

[ MORE: How did Pulisic perform? ]

Captain Cesar Azpilicueta hailed the total team effort as well, noting the contributions of Pulisic and Batshuayi.

“We are a team that always works hard together,” Azpilicueta said. “We know only 11 can start and three can come on. The substitutions did well today. Michy got the goal, Christian (Pulisic) got the assist, we are a group.”

Chelsea players encourage Pulisic to keep working

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Christian Pulisic was not included in a Chelsea squad for the first time in his Premier League career, as the American playmaker was left out of Frank Lampard‘s 18-man squad for the UEFA Champions League win at Lille on Wednesday.

Pulisic, 21, was an unused sub in four of Chelsea’s previous five games, with his only minutes since August coming in a 7-1 win against fourth-tier Grimsby Town in the League Cup.

[ MORE: Pulisic talks to JPW about Chelsea frustrations ]   

Speaking to reporters after the the game in Lille, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta encouraged Pulisic to keep working hard to try and get back into the team.

“This is a long path. We are still in a long season, we are still in October. He is working hard and sometimes we know that the manager has to make decisions but I see him working hard in training,” Azpilicueta said. “From here all I can say is to encourage him to keep working because we know that a new country, a new team, a bit of time of adaptation. I see him with a character and working hard in training and hopefully, and I’m sure he will be very important for us for this season.”

Getting the backing of Chelsea’s captain is a good step in the right direction for Pulisic, and there is a general sense within the Blues’ young squad that he will come good.

Azpilicueta is clearly impressed with what he’s seen from the 21-year-old so far and having a senior player put his arm around the shoulder of the young American is exactly what he needs in this tough situation. Azpilicueta also suggested that it has taken Pulisic a little bit of time to settle into life in England and in the PL with Chelsea, which was always going to take some time.

These words of encouragement will go a long way for a player who has admitted it is “very frustrating” to not be on the pitch.

Kind words aside, Pulisic is clearly going to struggle for minutes in the weeks and months ahead.

His competitors for a starting spot have stepped things up in recent weeks since they have taken Pulisic’s place in the team.

Willian scored a stunning volley to win it for Chelsea in Lille on Wednesday and the Brazilian winger also scored in their 2-0 win against Brighton on Saturday. Callum Hudson-Odoi has two assists and a goal in his last three games since returning from injury and the 18-year-old is showing superb signs of progression despite spending the last six months on the sidelines with an Achilles injury.

As for Mason Mount, he is probably Pulisic’s direct rival for a spot in the team but the English midfielder is grinding away, working hard and has been playing well out on the wing or tucked just inside. Pulisic may have more quality than Mount in one-on-one situations, but Lampard appears to trust the player he had on loan at Derby County last season a little more.

Pulisic will have to be patient but he will get chances to play. Lampard has already said that. Those opportunities will likely come in the League Cup, FA Cup and the odd PL game and for now the former Borussia Dortmund winger will have to accept that.

Klopp tabs Matip as ‘one of the best pieces of business’ for Liverpool

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On Friday, in Liverpool’s run-up to a Premier League battle with Sheffield United, Jurgen Klopp labeled Joel Matip as “one of the best pieces of business we did in the last few years.”

He’s not wrong.

“In a world of big transfer fees, to sign a player like Joel Matip on a free transfer is incredible,” Klopp said. Again, he’s not wrong.

The 28-year-old signed on a free from German side Schalke back in the summer of 2016, and he has become a fixture of the Liverpool defense, standing strong next to Virgil Van Dijk as part of one of the best back lines in Europe.

It essentially happened by accident. Matip, signed as nothing more than defensive cover for a squad that included Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho, Joe Gomez, and Ragnar Klavan. Yet he started 27 matches that season, forging a partnership with Lovren with Sakho on his way out, Gomez still too young for a consistent role, and Klavan down the depth chart. The next season van Dijk was brought in and yet Matip pushed through hamstring and ankle injuries to make 22 starts. Last season, en route to a vicious title challenge and a Champions League crown, Matip again was not meant to start, but with Lovren and Gomez both injured, Matip formed a critical partnership with van Dijk and has led by example.

So who else has come from relative obscurity on a savvy bit of business to take a starring role? Here are the five best bits of business in the Premier League currently playing for the club that snagged them, outside of Klopp’s prized center-back of course.

5) Kasper Schmeichel, Leicester City (Leeds United, $2 million)

Goalkeepers never draw the same massive transfer fees as their outfield counterparts, but even so, the Leicester City shot-stopper has been a true man of the badge since joining in 2011, making 341 appearances for the Foxes and proving a key cog in the legendary run to the title a few years back. That team was full of great value players (more on that in a bit), and while they cashed in on some, the son of the legendary Manchester United goalkeeper stuck around the club he loves.

4) Dele Alli, Tottenham Hotspur (MK Dons, $6 million)

As just a teenager, Alli was sent to Spurs in the winter of early 2015 and immediately loaned back to MK Dons for the rest of the season. Immediately, they had to know their mistake. Alli was selected as the Football League Young Player of the Year in April, and his career skyrocketed from there. Providing both a physical presence and free-flowing nature on the ball, Alli has proven a versatile option in midfield for Spurs, and while he struggles to maintain consistent form, his best is both fearsome and artistic. Still just 23 years old, it seems the best may be yet to come for the England midfielder who has already racked up 187 appearances for the London club.

3) Andy Robertson, Liverpool (Hull City, $10 million)

Sure, Joel Matip came for free, but he still might not be the best bit of business on the club. Andy Robertson, Liverpool’s stellar left-back, signed for $10 million and looks to be the makings of a downright star. At 25 years old, he also looks set to be a Red for quite some time, giving the club incredible value for its money. $10 million in today’s market doesn’t net teams what it used to, making it all the more impressive the Reds could snag a player of his promise for such a price. Along with Trent Alexander-Arnold on the other side, the Reds appear set for a long time with one of Europe’s best back lines.

2) Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea (Marseille, $9 million)

The Blues are known for splashing the cash, but the then-23-year-old Spaniard came over from Ligue 1 in the summer of 2012 to little fanfare. He has gone on to make 345 appearances for Chelsea, serving as captain for many and proving a versatile and consistent option along the defense. Perhaps the most stunning part of Azpilicueta’s career is that he only has 25 caps for Spain, a shockingly low number for such a valuable player at one of Europe’s biggest clubs. Still, his service to Chelsea has been a far cry from his measly up-front cost.

1) Jamie Vardy, Leicester City (Fleetwood Town, $1.5 million)

Much has been made of Vardy’s story, having come from the semi-professional ranks and risen up to a Premier League title. For what he’s given Leicester City – 277 appearances and 110 goals, including 83 Premier League strikes in 182 appearances – the fee is next to nothing. Not many could have predicted what Vardy would provide, or that he’d become a regular for the England national team before the rise of Harry Kane, but now the tale has been written. Vardy will go down as one of the most undervalued transfers in Premier League history, deservedly so.