London (AFP) – Thomas Tuchel has hailed rejuvenated Cesar Azpilicueta as a “key factor” in Chelsea’s fine run, saying the pair struck up an instant rapport.
Chelsea have lost just twice since the German replaced Frank Lampard as manager at Stamford Bridge in January, reaching the FA Cup final and the Champions League final.
Tuchel’s side, who are also closing in on a top-four finish in the Premier League, take on Manchester City at the Etihad on Saturday in a dress rehearsal for the Champions League showdown in Istanbul.
Pep Guardiola’s men can seal the Premier League title with victory over fourth-placed Chelsea.
Chelsea swept past Real Madrid 2-0 on Wednesday and 3-1 on aggregate to book their Champions League final date with City, with Azpilicueta again impressing for the Blues.
Tuchel said the Spain international, 31, often sidelined towards the end of Lampard’s tenure, had been a “huge, huge factor — a key factor” since he arrived.
“I met a very honest and very open young man, who is so super-reliable on the pitch and who leaves his heart out there on the pitch every time he steps on the pitch for us,” he said.
“As a captain he’s a true leader, in his personal way that suits his characteristics. And we’re very happy that he plays all the time because he deserves to play all the time.
“He’s a key factor, with his mentality, mindset and his ambition.”
Mateo Kovacic will miss the City trip with a hamstring problem but Tuchel hopes to have the Croatia midfielder back in time for the FA Cup final, against Leicester on May 15.
Chelsea shut down City in their 1-0 FA Cup semi-final win last month, thwarting Guardiola’s side’s chances of an unprecedented quadruple.
But Tuchel does not expect that encounter, or Saturday’s Premier League clash, to have any bearing on the Champions League final later this month.
Asked if Chelsea could lay down another marker with a big result this weekend, Tuchel replied: “I’m not so sure. The possibility they can become champions if they win against us will not lower their ambitions and determination.
“They have one more day to recover, they don’t have to travel, and that gives them a bit of the upper hand.”
“I think the final in Istanbul will be pretty unique, no matter the score tomorrow, no matter if we win, they win or if we draw,” he said.
“I think both teams will reflect enough that this one game in football and this special game in Istanbul can turn any result around that is the outcome tomorrow.”
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