“I thought (Eden) Hazard was one of the best players in Europe, but now I am changing my mind that he is the best.”
Those words were Maurizio Sarri’s after the Belgian’s one-man demolition job of Cardiff at the weekend. While the Chelsea boss made the remark with a wry smile, his talisman is staking a claim to be considered among the elite.
Hazard has always cut a divisive figure in England. For all perceived brilliance, pace and trickery, he doesn’t just seem to hit consistent form in the final. That singular malaise elevates Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The Ballon d’Or tyrants are ruthless when it comes to hitting the target.
Hazard was the closest to the pair when he arrived Stamford Bridge in 2012. Heralded to halt the sour duopoly, the Belgian had all the attributes to reach those heights. Skilful, fleet-footed and pacey, he could drag his team through games. He had the charming looks, too, to captivate the female folks.
In the Ligue 1, Hazard was like an overaged player in an age-grade tourney. He scored for fun, assisted at will. The Belgian plundered 34 strikes in his last two seasons. Despite his youth, Hazard was unafraid to take games by the scruff of the neck.
At Chelsea, however, he struggled to reach those heights. His form came in patches; flattering to deceive. Of course, he was always going to mesmerize defences, leaving markers trailing in his wake. He would produce that odd slippery turn with coltish, slightly clumsy vigour, too. Yet, wasn’t sufficient.
Hazard’s league-best return is 16 in 2016/17. He had registered two less in successive seasons before that. The last term, he buried a dozen. Those numbers would send Ronaldo and Messi giggling. He failed to reach double figures twice. At one point between 2015 and 2016, the Belgian went 29 matches without registering anything.
There’s a significant change under Sarri. Hazard is finally delivering the goods with aplomb. Despite only starting three games, the 27-year-old has struck five times; the joint-most in Europe’s top five leagues. With a further two assists, he has had a direct hand in more goals (7) than any other Premier League player.
Hazard is enjoying his football again. Like a man served with some kind of steroid by Sarri, he seems super motivated and unusually optimistic. With less defensive work, he focuses less energy outside of the final third.
“I think Hazard can improve more. I think that he can spend less energy than now at 50 or 60 metres to the opposite goal,” the Italian opined.
Beyond the goals, the Belgian also leads the way for dribbles (18) and has had a direct hand in a goal every 44 minutes on average. Such remarkable figures will no doubt prove unsustainable, but there is still reason to believe that this could well be Hazard’s most devastating season yet.
Clearly, the era of the Ronaldo-Messi is coming to an end. For the first time in almost a decade, there wasn’t a Ballon d’Or podium finish for both. Messi would feel slightly hard done, though. Hazard is in pole position to step in. He must remain consistent, first.
Written by Toby Prince
Follow Toby on Twitter @prinzToby
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