As Chelsea's three elder statesmen on defense slowly begin to age, the Blues have made a concerted effort to go out and acquire solid backups to ensure their status as one of the English Premier League's best defensive clubs for years to come.
Left-back Ashley Cole (32 years old), centre-back John Terry (32) and right-back Branislav Ivanovic (29) aren't exactly ready to be put out to pasture just yet, but Chelsea have done a nice job in grooming Ryan Bertrand (23), Gary Cahill (27) and Cesar Azpilicueta (23) for their future time in the sun in the Blues back four.
Cracking the starting XI or even making the first-team roster for one of the elite football teams in Europe is no small feat—as talented loanees like Michael Essien (Real Madrid), Romelu Lukaku (West Bromwich Albion) and Kevin De Bruyne (Werder Bremen) can attest to—but has Azpilicueta actually done enough to supplant Ivanovic as a starter at right-back?
It may be starting to look that way.
Now granted, tabbing anyone as a starter at Stamford Bridge has been a tenuous thing with only Petr Cech (27 EPL starts), Ashley Cole (26), Juan Mata (23), Eden Hazard (25) and Fernando Torres (23) really being expected to be penciled in as starters at a specific position by a Chelsea manager or interim manager this season.
Who would you choose as your starter at right-back if you were Chelsea manager?
David Luiz (22), Ramires (21) and Cahill (20) have also received their fair share of starts but have been employed in multiple spots either in the back four or in the central or advanced midfield for the Blues.
To date, Azpilicueta has so far started in as many games this year (17) as Oscar (17), John Obi Mikel (16) and Frank Lampard (16) have in top-flight English play, and he is slowly making a case to be deemed the team's starting right-back.
And although every club on the planet would probably love to have the rugged 6'2" Ivanovic (26 starts) in its starting XI, Chelsea and Rafael Benitez now find themselves having a pretty nice problem in being forced to choose between Ivanovic and Azpilicueta as a starter at right-back.
Ivanovic, the captain of the Serbian national team and the nation's Player of the Year, hasn't exactly had a season deserving of a demotion and has scored four goals and notched one assist to date in league play.
The veteran does show the occasional lapse in concentration as he did against Swansea City in the Blues' 2-0 loss to the Swans at Stamford Bridge in the Capital One Cup semifinals on Jan. 9 when he made a lazy pass in front of Chelsea's box which led to a Michu goal.
Showing he's as much of a man as he is a footballer, Ivanovic—who had to be placated while making his way down the tunnel to the locker room after the match, according to the Daily Mail because he was so mad at himself—apologized to his teammates for the brain freezes on defense.
But finding things wrong with Ivanovic's game is much like complaining about Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl Kate Upton's waistline—it may not be perfect, but it's likely better than 97 percent of the competition.
One good thing about the possibility of Ivanovic losing his starting job at right-back to Azpilicueta is that he is extremely versatile and can be used as a centre-back as he has been quite often now that the young Spaniard is getting used to playing in the rugged Premier League.
With Terry, Luiz and Cahill all basically fighting for starts at centre-back, Ivanovic will likely never really be able to earn a starting nod there, but with the captain being injured for a chunk of the season and Luiz being sometimes deployed as a defensive midfielder, he serves an incredibly valuable role for the Blues through his versatility.
And although he hasn't been used yet as a substitute in a Premier League game, possibly having to use Ivanovic—who is an incredible threat in the air on offense—as an option off the bench in the not-too-distant future is a testament to how really deep this changing Chelsea team really is.
Besides being able to provide vocal leadership, stand up for or criticize the club or teammates, be an enforcer and score the occasional goal or two, Ivanovic is serving as an incredible mentor at right-back for Azpilicueta who came to West London from Marseille in Ligue 1 over the summer transfer window.
And with billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich wanting to mold a team in the style of Barcelona's tiki-taka, ball-control offense, the nimble and quicker Azpilicueta may fit in better with the smaller skill guys like Mata, Hazard, Oscar and Ramires on the attack.
In his debut season at Stamford Bridge, Azpilicueta does have four assists but is still waiting to score his first goal for the European champions.
Defensively, Azpilicueta has been absolutely stellar and is a big reason Chelsea is second in the Premier League in goals allowed (30) behind Manchester City (26) and has justified Benitez's decision to start him more often and use Ivanovic in the middle when the situation warrants.
And if it weren't for the brilliant Hazard stealing so much of the spotlight from the other first-year Chelsea players, Azpilicueta, who is proving to be an adept passer, would likely be getting much more recognition from both the media and fans.
Whether or not the next Blues manager (insert wishful Jose Mourinho optimism here if you want) decides to consider Azpilicueta a usual starter next season remains to be seen, but having to choose between a potential future star like him and an excellent player like Ivanovic is a dilemma most managers in the Premier League would absolutely love to have.
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