Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 and spent the next nine years desperately hoping for one thing. No matter how many coaches he fired, no matter how many league titles Chelsea won, it simply didn't arrive ... until the summer of 2012. The final piece of the jigsaw was in place.
I'm talking about the Champions League trophy, of course, but this also could apply to something else: Chelsea's lack of a consistent, attacking, technically gifted right back. In rough chronological order, there have been no fewer than 10 right backs given a run in the side in the Abramovich era: Mario Melchiot, Paulo Ferreira, Glen Johnson, Geremi, Michael Essien, Lassana Diarra, Khalid Boulahrouz, Juliano Belletti, Jose Bosingwa and Branislav Ivanovic.
Yet none were ever a perfect fit: Essien and Diarra were midfielders, with Ivanovic and Boulahrouz more comfortable in the centre of defence. Johnson and Geremi were signed in Abramovich's first few days but weren't at the required level for that position, while Melchiot and Belletti were never a key part of a grand plan.
Ferreira and Bosingwa were the two right backs Chelsea really shelled out for. Ferreira was bought for 13 million pounds in 2004, following Jose Mourinho to London from Porto. "He'll never be man of the match," Mourinho once said. "But he'll always be 7/10." In short, Ferreira was steady, disciplined and reliable -- a perfect squad player. In his first couple of seasons he offered a good attacking threat, but he's a classic example of a player who thrived under Mourinho; after his departure in 2007, however, Ferreira increasingly became a squad man, a utility player.
That season, Ferreira fell behind Essien and Belletti in the pecking order. In the Champions League final in Moscow, Avram Grant chose to play Essien at right back with Belletti on the bench. The Ghanaian offered tremendous energy going forward, even hitting an astonishing swerving strike against Arsenal the previous season from that position. But he was never a natural defender, something Manchester United exploited in the final -- Cristiano Ronaldo towered above him to head home the opener. Besides, Essien's quality was missed in midfield.
Chelsea needed someone more like the Ferreira of 2004 and so they returned to Porto to sign his replacement there, Jose Bosingwa, for 16 million pounds. The Portuguese international had a good first season but suffered a knee injury early in October 2009 and was out for a year. In truth, he never regained the explosive pace that attracted Chelsea in the first place even though he did become a better defender -- his performances against Barcelona and Bayern Munich (who had previously tried to sign him) last season were among the most impressive of his Chelsea career, but like Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, he was free to leave the club.
Throughout Bosingwa's injury problems, Ivanovic was played at right back. He'd been signed as a central defender to partner John Terry, and in the early days looked completely uncomfortable near the touchline -- ponderous on the ball and slow to provide overlapping runs.
Again, it was Manchester United that highlighted this problem -- in a match at Stamford Bridge in 2009/10, Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a lopsided system featuring Antonio Valencia wide on the right and Ryan Giggs brought inside as a fourth central midfielder to compete with Chelsea's diamond. United closed down in the middle and Valencia tracked Ashley Cole's runs -- but United was content to let Ivanovic have the ball. Repeatedly, Chelsea played the ball out wide to the Serbian, but he lacked ideas and slowed the Blues' passing.
Chelsea actually won the game, despite United dominating, but it exposed a real problem, especially as Carlo Ancelotti was playing a diamond system and needed attacking thrust from his full backs. The system didn't last much longer. For the reverse fixture, Ferreira returned to the side and played a key role in Chelsea's crucial 2-1 win, constantly storming forward and taking United by surprise.
Ivanovic's attacking has improved significantly since then. In the past couple of seasons he developed a fondness for cutting inside before crossing the ball accurately with the outside of his right foot and he even scored in Chelsea's first two games this season.
However, Roberto Di Matteo clearly wants a more technical player at full back -- hence the signing of Cesar Azpilicueta from Marseille. Di Matteo has created a side full of versatile players who can play either on the flank or in the middle -- Oscar, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Marko Marin. Those players will all drift into central positions from the wing (Victor Moses is an exception, but he might not start much), meaning it's vital Chelsea have attacking full backs on both sides to provide width. Ashley Cole still does that brilliantly, while Azpilicueta will do the same thing on the right.
Juan Mata, who played alongside the 23-year-old at the Olympics, is delighted at his signing. "He is a strong running right-back who has pace as well, so I think he is already a complete player," Mata says. "He's a young player who is very clever on and off the pitch."
The Basque right-back suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury a couple of seasons ago, but appears to have fully recovered and still makes scampering runs up and down the touchline. He was impressive last season for Marseille and was occasionally their key player: in "Le Classique" against PSG last season at the Velodrome, perhaps Marseille's biggest game of the season, Azpilucueta was outstanding. Up against Nene, the Brazilian winger who finished joint top scorer in Ligue 1 last season, Azpilucueta played him bravely, constantly pushing high up the pitch, receiving the ball in space,and helping to overload PSG's left back. Marseille won 3-0 with all three goals coming from that side.
If Azpilicueta has a weakness, it's his defending. He likes to get tight to opponents and tries to intercept the ball before it reaches the opposition winger, a little like Gael Clichy of Manchester City. He'll have to improve in that respect, but the point of his signing is to give an extra option -- Di Matteo now has a secure defender in Ivanovic and an energetic attacking player in Azpilicueta at his disposal.
Having been capped at all youth levels for Spain -- from U-16 through to U-23 -- Azpilicueta has yet to appear for the full national side. Like at Chelsea, he would offer a more technical alternative to the current right back Alvaro Arbeloa, who often frustrated teammates with his defensive positioning at Euro 2012 (though the former Liverpool man played well in the knockout stages).
International recognition can wait -- first, Azpilicueta has to impress for his club. A potential debut at QPR this weekend would be an intriguing test: with Jose Bosingwa now playing for the opposition, it will be a direct comparison of old and new -- is Azpilicueta 7 million pounds better than his predecessor?