The unforgiving amongst you might consider Eden Hazard’s late surge of form this season as an attempt to impress Real Madrid or Paris St Germain. The slightly more charitable might assume that Belgium’s captain – in the absence of Vincent Kompany – is gearing up for the European Championship. The answer probably lies somewhere closer to the latter than the former. Suddenly, Hazard looks like the attacking midfielder we knew he could be.
The PFA Player of the Year award is an unlikely albatross to hang around the neck, but the timing is close to exact. Three days before Riyad Mahrez took Hazard’s crown, the Belgian finally scored his first league goal of the season after a 30-match drought; it was his first game back from injury. Since then, four more goals have followed in 271 minutes. Like his compatriot Kevin de Bruyne, a return to fitness has been complemented by some excellent late-season form.
It is not just Hazard’s goal record that has improved since his injury. He has had seven shots on target in his last four league games, as many as in every other match of his league campaign combined. His total of 20 completed dribbles in those same four games matches his cumulative total since November.
Hazard’s goal at Anfield was a vintage of his genre. His acceleration and quickness of foot are so dangerous that he does not need to head straight for goal. Instead he had time to loop around Adam Lallana, making him look utterly foolish, before slaloming past Roberto Firmino, James Milner and Dejan Lovren. The finish was the same seen on so many occasions during Chelsea’s title march, caressed into the bottom corner.
One of Hazard’s greatest tricks is to distract an opponent by moving his body from side to side without shifting the ball, thus constantly forcing defenders to guess his next movement. He then waits until his opponent has placed his weight on one foot before dipping in the opposite direction. It is the same strategy that Lionel Messi uses to devastating effect.
Yet it was not just in the flashes of brilliance that Hazard impressed, but throughout. His nine completed dribbles represents his highest total since the final day of last season, and the last time he had three shots on target in a Premier League game was April 2015. Hazard’s through ball for Pedro in the second half was one of the most beautiful passes of the season. It may be little consolation to Chelsea supporters after the worst title defence in Premier League history, but this really was one of the individual displays of the season.
Chelsea supporters will be keen to question why it has taken this long for their best player to fire, but Guus Hiddink has his own answer. “It’s difficult for a talented, high-quality player like Hazard,” he said last month. “I think this season he had a very difficult season, falling into injuries coming back, nearly back, playing half a game and then falling back into injuries. It’s frustrating. When he is there fully fit physically and mentally then he is one of the best.”
Perhaps rather than criticising Hazard too heavily, it really is that simple. Having fallen out with Jose Mourinho over the opening day ‘incident’ against Swansea, that relationship was never fully rebuilt. Since then, Hazard been injured three times between December and March. This season might just have been a (extended) blip, and Antonio Conte would be the benefactor of that principle. It’s worth pointing out that, by all accounts, Hazard has expressed a keen desire to stay at Stamford Bridge.
Sympathy will be hard to find for Eden Hazard among Chelsea’s faithful, but it is surely time to draw a line under this dismal campaign. Football fans have longer memories than most brain-training elephants, but there is nothing to be gained through continued suspicion. Holding on to resentment only cuts off the nose and spites the face.
Not only was this a display from Eden Hazard to make you wonder what might have been, it also changed the tense of that question. On this form, he is talented enough to make Chelsea supporters dream of what might be again.