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The Decline of Hazzard

Eden Hazard’s descent from PFA and Football Writers player of the year in 2014/15 to the fringes of the Chelsea first team within six months has been a peculiar one. Hazard has not scored for Chelsea this season in any competition; in comparison he scored 21 goals in 59 appearances for Chelsea last season. What has happened since Thierry Henry was moved to write? “On his day, nobody can stop him. He has such great quality on the ball; he can create something from nothing and that is a sign of a special player”.

Hazard is the son of two Belgian footballers, his mother was a striker in the Belgian women’s first division and his father played at semi-professional level. Hazard showed great promise as a child and was signed by French club Lille in 2005 at the age of 14; and made his first team debut at sixteen years of age in 2007. Hazard cemented his place in Lille’s first team and became the youngest UNFP Ligue 1 player of the year in 2010/11 when Lille won the league and cup double in France. After spending eight years at Lille, Hazard signed for Chelsea in June 2012 for £32 million.

Hazard quickly adapted to the premier league and helped Chelsea to win the Europa League in his first season with the club. Hazard’s low centre of gravity, nimble feet, acceleration and ability to go past players comfortably on his weaker side made him a challenge for even the most accomplished full back. What typified his rise to the top of the game was his attitude; former managers praised his work ethic in training and ability to fit in with the team’s objectives. However, in 2014 cracks began to appear in Hazard’s relationship with Mourinho. Atletico Madrid beat Chelsea 3-1 in Stamford Bridge in the semi-final of the Champions League; following the defeat Hazard complained that “Chelsea aren’t set up to play football. Chelsea are set up to counter attack”. Mourinho hit back by saying “When the comments come from a player like Eden, it’s normal. He’s not the kind of player who is ready to sacrifice himself 100 per cent for the team and his mates”. Hazard was not offered a free role under Mourinho, even in free flow one sensed that Hazard was somewhat inhibited. His tendency to extract free kicks from opponents, particularly by backing into defenders and collapsing to the floor illustrated his ability to please his manager, who favoured the odds that set plays around the box offered his team.

The 2014/15 season went very smoothly for Chelsea who blitzed opponents early in the season before winding down to take the title comfortably. Hazard was Chelsea’s outstanding player and his relationship with Mourinho had not been tested in such a comfortable season. The start to the 2015/16 season would see Mourinho and Hazard’s relationship fracture beyond repair. Hazard sought treatment from the Chelsea physio in the final minutes when Chelsea were reduced to 10 men and fighting for a draw at home to Swansea. Mourinho bizarrely castigated the physio for performing her duties and by doing so appeared to have lost the respect of Hazard and many of his team-mates. Hazard has since played as if on a go slow, the spark in his game replaced with petulance and indolence. Missed penalties and accusations of faking injuries have clouded Hazard’s season, but with Mourinho gone will the premier league see a return of the Hazard who struck terror into opposing defenders, or will the spiritless performances continue for a Chelsea team languishing in the bottom half of the table?

The answer may lie with Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane, now the Real Madrid manager said in November 2015 “After Messi and Ronaldo, Hazard is my favourite player. It is spectacular to see him play. Do I see him going to Real Madrid? I love the player, that’s all I will say”. Zidane has long been used by Real Madrid to lure top players to the Bernabeu. Hazard’s switch to Los Blancos now seems like a formality. Hiddink now has the task of extracting performances from a discouraged superstar who appears intent on safeguarding his future with Madrid by listlessly running down the clock on his time with Chelsea.

By Noel Sheehy