It is rather odd that Jose Mourinho should still be spinning the rhetoric that his Chelsea team are not title challengers whilst he sits, with 9 games to go, top of the league, 7 points clear of second place Liverpool and 9 clear of Manchester City.
Cup commitments and postponements mean City have 3 games in hand and are still genuine rivals as they head into the run-in, but the momentum is with Chelsea. 14 games unbeaten with only 5 goals conceded since their last defeat and they will be targeting the game at home to Arsenal in a fortnight’s time as the moment they theoretically clinch the championship Mourinho still appears to believe is beyond his side’s reach.
It does not require a body language analyst or an expert intuition to see beyond Mourinho’s bluff however. The Portuguese will know his team are favourites for the title and his eyes will be directed higher than his next step of “making sure of top 3 to give us automatic Champions League qualification”, though the underlying message in Mourinho’s repeated stance, that his second coming at Chelsea is still a work in progress and still in need of his masterful touch as they go through transition in some areas, is probably true.
He has privately criticised his strikers for a frustrating lack of goals and not one out of Samuel Eto’o, Demba Ba or Fernando Torres can be sure they will be at the club next season. Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard have struggled for regular appearances as they hit the twilight of their careers and at the age of 33, despite his excellent form at the back, John Terry is also approaching the concluding chapters of his term.
Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne have been moved on while Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah have come in and are still settling into life at Stamford Bridge. One of last summer’s imports Marco Van Ginkel suffered a season-ending injury just 2 games into the campaign and he will have to wait for his time, so too will Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Lucas Piazon and Christian Atsu, all out on loan and vying for places in Mourinho’s future plans.
Mourinho is clear on the player he wants to build his team around however, the winger who can sympathise with the mantra of slow, gradual progress that the Portuguese is trying to pedal. Eden Hazard didn’t have the easiest of introductions into Premier League life, arriving from Lille with the massive hype that usually comes with a fee in the region of £32 million – a figure that even bulks the play140 guide for online slots, especially beginners – he was always going to find it hard to live up to vast expectation and having shown glimpses of his undeniable talents, he ended the season on 9 league goals, 13 in all competitions from a total of 62 appearances.
Though he was hindered by a troubled season at Chelsea in which they changed from Andre Villas-Boas, the man who signed him in the summer to Rafael Benitez, and yet he still emerged as one of the club’s brightest lights in his debut season in England.
It ended with the Belgian winning the Europa League as well as a place in the PFA’s team of the season, to suggest that the large expense laid on Hazard will be gradually worth every penny. “I’ve said to him he has got absolutely everything. He’s only 22, he has the world at his feet and with the way he’s playing and the ability he has on the ball, he is scaring the life out of people,” said Frank Lampard last March, comparing him to the mercurial Gianfranco Zola.
Hazard is very much in place to replicate the effect Zola had on Stamford Bridge with Mourinho foreseeing that the Belgian will be at the hub of Chelsea’s success for the next decade, he has the opportunity to play himself into the realms of club heroism.
“Eden is something else. This is the guy we want to have for 10 years, by his style of play and personality. We want to build the team around him”, said the manager after he watched the 23 year old hit a hat-trick in the 3-0 victory over Newcastle. Those goals saw him pass last season’s goal tally and this time around he sits on 15 from all competitions already, with Chelsea still involved in the Champions League and on course for their fourth Premier League title win.
His improvement under the settled but onerous environment of Mourinho has been palpable yet it has taken full cooperation with the Portuguese manager’s demands from the very start. Mourinho requested greater professionalism and industry in pre-season, asking for more commitment and greater work-rate.
Hazard, notorious for his laid-back nature, had to adapt and so far his change in attitude has been a revelation. The manager did have to leave him out of the Champions League tie with Schalke after Hazard, who mislaid his passport following a trip to his former club Lille, failed to make pre-match training, though that has been an anomaly.
“He accepted that immediately and understood he was wrong, but was wrong in a naive way,” Mourinho said about the incident. “He hadn’t thought about the possibility of being late and missing a training session. I remember perfectly in that [Schalke] game he was in the dressing room, he was behind the dugout, even if he was not selected. The reality is that, since pre-season, he has understood the levels of professionalism I demand from my players”.
Hazard’s influence meanwhile hasn’t been limited to just goals. He has created 79 chances in the Premier League and registered 7 assists from his usual position on the left of the midfield attacking three, habitually cutting inside to either link or shoot at goal, as he has done 59 times this year.
At times, most memorably in the vital 0-1 win at Manchester City, his movement across the attacking positions has been devastating, using his intelligence to pop up in different areas to lure defenders out in order to make space for team-mates.
He’s dangerous on the ball too, confident and willing to drive at defenders to spark Chelsea into life in the final third, completing 107 dribbles across his 29 appearances and causing huge worry to his marker; the 81 fouls Hazard has drawn this season makes him the most offended-against player in the league.
It is telling that Mourinho, normally cautious with who he affords praise to and the amount of it he gives out, has been particularly glowing of his number 17. “He’s the best young player in the world. Under 23, under 24, he is for sure the best in the world and if he continues in this direction, who knows where he can arrive” he has said, though the Portuguese has also understood the need to urge a degree of caution.
“I keep saying he has to improve. He needs to have his feet on the ground. Ronaldo and Messi are Ronaldo and Messi. Eden Hazard is probably the best young player in the world with legs to go there, but give him time” .
Time will be generously afforded to Hazard in south west London by the manager who lauds him and the fans who are beginning to worship him. 10 years is the proposed scale and there are likely to be numerous trophies and accolades to come in that time.
“I still have a lot of things to do here” Hazard said, starting this year with the apparently premature title that he is majestically taking Chelsea to.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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