Pep Guardiola stood with tears in his eyes on the confetti-strewn pitch at the Etihad Stadium. He had minutes earlier watched his Manchester City players jubilantly lift the Premier League trophy but there was also a reason for great sadness.
It would be the last time Sergio Aguero would represent the club in Manchester. Their all-time top scorer, a man who helped transform City into a dominant Premier League force, was to leave at the end of his contract.
That wasn’t the Argentine’s decision. The choice was made for him by the City hierarchy and Guardiola. It felt ruthless, cold given all Aguero had achieved, but there was no going back.
Still, Guardiola felt hugely emotional when the day finally came for Aguero to say goodbye to City’s supporters and staff at the Etihad. “We love him so much. He’s a special person for all of us,” the Catalan coach said as he held back his tears.
“He’s so nice, so nice. He helped me a lot. We cannot replace him…we cannot. There are many players that this club have had – Joe Hart, David Silva helped this club to be what it is. And he showed his quality in 20 minutes [on his debut with two goals].”
Guardiola was largely true to his word. City didn’t replace Aguero, not directly at least, in the summer. They instead committed £100million on Jack Grealish and backed their array of attacking talents to fill the goalscoring void left by the Argentine international, who would go on to join Barcelona before being forced to retire in December due to a heart condition.
City haven’t missed Aguero, not on the pitch at least. In the Premier League, they are top once again and sit nine points ahead of Liverpool in second. Guardiola has also guided his side into the Champions League knockout stage and will attempt to win the FA Cup.
City have become a relentless winning machine since Guardiola’s appointment. They’re almost robotically efficient and can seemingly win games on pure muscle memory alone. That has been made possible through shrewd transfer decisions and elite coaching – the squad is perfectly suited to their head coach’s demands.
Difficult calls have been made along the way: Aguero isn’t the only club legend to have been let go under Guardiola, Vincent Kompany and David Silva walked out the door too.
Chelsea find themselves in a similar position with Cesar Azpilicueta. The Blues’ club captain – a man who has won almost everything there is to win at Stamford Bridge – is out of contract in the summer and is set to walk away on a free transfer.
Barcelona are interested in the 32-year-old and have put an offer on the table. However, it’s understood no final decision has been made by Azpilicueta regarding the next chapter of his storied career.
He has been fiercely loyal to Chelsea for almost a decade and the model of consistency. His versatility has also proved invaluable under several head coaches.
Azpilcueta won the Premier League under Jose Mourinho as a left-back. He then claimed the title in Antonio Conte’s first season playing on the right of a back three. With Maurizio Sarri in charge, the Spain international lifted the Europa League trophy having started the final at right-back.
And during last season’s run to the Champions League final, Thomas Tuchel used Azpilicueta as a centre-back but also a right wing-back. That he raised the big-eared trophy in Porto was just a reward for his reliability and dependability amid the chaos that is Chelsea.
Azpilicueta is a Blues legend in every sense of the word; a player who has always put the club beyond himself. But time waits for no man and this summer is the right moment for the Blues and the Spaniard to part ways.
That may prove painful, there may well be tears, yet the Blues’ squad needs to evolve under Thomas Tuchel. Like-for-like replacements in key positions are needed, another title charge can’t be halted because of injuries to one or two players.
Azpilicueta remains a fine defender, but he is no Reece James. He doesn’t possess the same technical quality as the academy graduate nor the same physicality – no great surprise given James is ten years his captain’s junior.
This stark difference between the two has been highlighted in James’ absence over the past month. Azpilicueta has filled in at both wing-back and right-back and while he’s been solid, Chelsea’s attacking game has suffered as a result.
To echo Guardiola’s words, Chelsea won’t be able to replace Azpilicueta. But it is still the right time to say goodbye, and he should receive a grand farewell.
Source by Football London