Hazard’s revival spurring Chelsea’s title charge

Quiz time: can you remember a player losing his form quite as dramatically as Eden Hazard did last year?

Eden Hazard

Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard Source: AFP

At a stretch, you could probably compare it to Fernando Torres - but the Spaniard did suffer a terrible injury and change clubs, which arguably sparked his fall from grace. Since 2011, only once (11 goals in 2012-13) has he scored double figures in the domestic league.

Hazard’s decline was more swift and spectacular. He didn’t have a terrible injury and he didn’t change clubs. The excuses simply didn’t exist.

Good players often had bad patches, but Hazard went from being the best player in England and looking as though he was ready to challenge Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to somebody who wasn’t fit to tie their bootlaces.

Statistically, it was his worst season since his first full year as a professional, as an 18-year old at Lille in 2008-09.

He missed penalties in the Champions League and League Cup, then went scoreless in the English Premier League until April 23, grabbing a few goals in the final few matches - something the cynics argued was merely to show other clubs that he was still capable of doing it when it counted.

Chelsea fans were also hugely critical of his attitude. Not only was he seen as temperamental and stroppy, but the word in the stands - fuelled by the tabloid press - was that he played a major role in the downfall of Jose Mourinho. Both he and Diego Costa were given a torrid time by the fans.

Indeed, had another club made a substantial offer, one suspects he would have jumped at the chance to leave and Chelsea would have accepted it. Would he, like Torres, become a liability that couldn’t be turned around?

Chelsea gambled on Hazard being renewed by the arrival of a new manager. Already, caretaker boss Guus Hiddink had appeared to quell him, or at least take some of the irritation from Hazard’s demeanour.

The question was whether Antonio Conte could find the remaining spark that was missing.

The brilliant Italian had an immediate impact. While Mourinho’s relationship with certain players was said to have devolved so dramatically that he barely spoke to them, Conte was the opposite.

A sensitive soul at heart, Hazard admitted the new manager’s approach in pre-season left an impression on him.

"He's a top guy, he tries to speak a lot with the players, to talk a lot, and we are pleased to work with him," Hazard said at the start of the campaign.

"He has the passion to do his job. He gives everything on the bench and we try to give everything on the pitch.”

Clearly, they were not platitudes. As much as those words were a minor dig at Mourinho, they were meant to signify the connection he’d struck with his new manager.

Now a third of the way through the season, it is safe to say that Hazard is back to his best, and his goal-scoring exploits have him on track to record a career-best season.

Not even a third of the season has been played but he’s already on seven league goals, meaning he’s already almost doubled his tally of last season.

He could even be on track to reach 20 goals in the season - a phenomenal effort for a winger - if he maintains this level of scoring prowess.

"We all know he's a talented player," Conte said last week. "I see that he's working a lot for the team and I think his team-mates are very happy for this. He's a complete player, when he plays in this way - with the ball and without the ball.”

In terms of goals, Hazard is only bettered by Sergio Aguero, Romelu Lukaku and, of course, Diego Costa.

Costa was the other whipping boy for last season, although his form didn’t drop nearly so far (finishing with 12 goals).

His combination with Hazard has been a joy to watch this season. Both are working as hard as each other and suddenly every time there's an attack at Stamford Bridge, a goal seems to be the outcome.

It will be tough for Conte to win the league in his first year in England, but with these two firing on all cylinders, you can bet your last dollar they'll be in the hunt for a while yet.

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4 min read
Published 16 November 2016 at 9:03am
By Sebastian Hassett