Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Eden Hazard's move to Real Madrid threatens to bring decline to Chelsea

Belgian forward's superb season papered over the cracks at Chelsea, and with a transfer ban looming, his exit will be felt even harder

The medium had changed but the message was the same. Eden Hazard was off. “I’m signing for the champion’s league winner,” he famously wrote on Twitter, complete with stray apostrophe, when he left Lille in 2012.

Seven years later, a lengthier, more eloquent goodbye came on Facebook. Hazard had won everything except the Champions League with Chelsea; Real Madrid had conquered Europe four times in that period. Once again, he has traded upwards.

It is a fond farewell. There is a recognition of the reality and a tacit acknowledgment that he became too good for Chelsea. He departs with a place on the unofficial shortlist for the title of their greatest player: Didier Drogba was the ultimate big-game performer, Frank Lampard the paragon of relentless consistency, Gianfranco Zola and Hazard the great entertainers. Each brought charm and class. Hazard invariably possessed sparkling footwork and a twinkle in his eye.

It says something for his excellence and the way he has endeared himself that there are no recriminations even though he is going when Chelsea can least afford to lose him. Getting £88.5 million (Dh414m) for a player whose contract expires next summer represents a triumph of negotiation, but Chelsea will be unable to spend it, assuming their transfer ban is upheld.

Chelsea took a pre-emptive measure by arranging the arrival of Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund, but the facts show the young American got four goals and four assists in the Bundesliga this season. Hazard was almost four times as productive, joining Eric Cantona, Matt Le Tissier and Thierry Henry in the select band of players to both score and create at least 15 goals in a Premier League campaign.

His eventual tallies of 16 and 15 meant he was directly involved in 49 per cent of Chelsea’s goals. No top-six side scored fewer and none was as reliant on one player. To some extent, Hazard camouflaged Chelsea’s striking problems, the failure of the signings of first Alvaro Morata and then Gonzalo Higuain, and compensated for the lack of goals in midfield, especially when Mateo Kovacic started.

Now those problems will be laid bare. Chelsea may consider themselves luckless: as they cannot buy, the injured Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi will miss the start of the season; potentially most of it, in the midfielder’s case.

They were two of the few to progress in the last 12 months, while there was evidence Willian regressed. Chelsea now look dependent on two wingers in their thirties, in the Brazilian and Pedro; when Hudson-Odoi is available again, he will shoulder a huge burden of expectation. At least, in persuading a player who submitted a transfer request in January to sign a new deal, they have shaped their future.

Maurizio Sarri’s successor ought to make more use of Olivier Giroud and to give Tammy Abraham a chance after his potent loan spell at Aston Villa. He will have to be both pragmatic and resourceful without the league’s most inventive player. No one left at Stamford Bridge got more than eight league goals, Pedro’s total, or six assists, Willian’s haul. Chelsea had only one of the division’s top 35 scorers and one of its top 20 creators: Hazard, in each case.

If the Belgian joined because of the Champions League, plumping for the 2012 winners ahead of the Manchester clubs, his legacy involves it, too: he helped Chelsea qualify in two different ways, his two goals and assist giving the Europa League final a one-sided scoreline.

And yet shorn of Hazard, with a bulging bank balance but no chance to source a successor, the chances are that Chelsea will not be playing in the Champions League in 2020-21. His departure threatens to bring decline.

Updated: June 8, 2019 02:42 PM

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