Chelsea ace Cesar Azpilicueta the most underrated in world football
For Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta, Monday night's rousing 4-3 victory over Watford carried great significance.
With the game just three days after the Premier League title-winning trip to West Brom, Blues manager Antonio Conte made a club record nine changes to his starting XI, with only Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard retaining their places.
Among those rested was Gary Cahill. Along with Azpilicueta, prior to the Watford game, Cahill had been the only ever-present in Conte's top flight teams but the Italian's decision left the Spain international out on his own as the only one to play every single minute of Chelsea's Premier League campaign to date.
The Blues' FA Cup final showdown with Arsenal -- just six days after their last league game of the season against Sunderland -- will mean Conte will once again manage the game time of his key players against the rock bottom Black Cats but it would be superb if he gave Azpilicueta the opportunity to achieve a 100 percent appearance record for the campaign.
Azpilicueta's name was nowhere to be seen on the nomination lists for the various player awards handed out this season. Teammate N'Golo Kante, named PFA and Football Writers' Association Player of the Year, has raked in the plaudits with Hazard running him close, but "Dave" as Chelsea supporters love to call him, has been overlooked -- a scandalous injustice when his contribution to Conte's title-winning cause is examined in more detail.
Versatility is the name of Azpilicueta's game, and when Conte made the pivotal call last September to switch to 3-4-3 it was the 27-year old he selected to play on the right-hand-side of his new-look three man central defence. It came as little surprise to Chelsea fans that he excelled in the role because since arriving at Stamford Bridge from Marseille in the summer of 2012 for what now looks like a bargain £6.5 million, he had played in every position across the Blues' backline and done so with aplomb.
Signed as right-back cover for Branislav Ivanovic by then manager Roberto Di Matteo, Azpilicueta found opportunities to play in that position limited by the form of the Serbia international, who was still at the top of his game. The return of Jose Mourinho as Chelsea boss a year later brought with it a switch to left-back and the displacement of club legend Ashley Cole. Mourinho was so impressed with his ability and work rate that he remarked that if he had 11 Azpilicuetas, the Blues would win the Champions League.
That didn't stop the Portuguese from signing specialist left-back Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid for £15.8m in July 2014, but Azpilicueta kept his place in the team as Chelsea went on to win the Premier League in the season that followed. Luis spent just a year at Stamford Bridge before returning to Atletico.
As age finally caught up with Ivanovic, it seemed logical Azpilicueta would finally move across to his natural right-back position, but fate and Conte's tactical wizardry deemed otherwise.
Conte may have uncovered the fact that Azpilicueta's best position is as a mobile centre-back but against Watford, he deployed the player as a wing-back, and the Spaniard's buccaneering runs forward would also bring a goal when he rifled home Chelsea's second to put the Blues 2-1 up.
After the game, mirroring the observation that Mourinho made three years ago, Conte mused that Azpilicueta was the type of player coaches loved and that if he asked him to play in goal, he would be ready.
While the wider football world seems blind to Azpilicueta's attributes, Chelsea know his abilities very well and he was votes the Players' Player of the Year at the end of the 2013-14 campaign. The award for this year will be made at an end of season dinner the day after the FA Cup Final and in the eyes of many supporters, no man is more deserving of accolade than Azpilicueta.
He is without a shadow of doubt the most underrated player in the Premier League -- if not world football.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco