Time for Eden Hazard to leave stagnant Chelsea to join hero Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid
While Belgian has outgrown Premier League club, there is evidence to suggest decline at Stamford Bridge
Call it football’s domino effect, perhaps.
The super-clubs feel interconnected. Events at one can set off a chain of events.
If Tottenham Hotspur breathed a sigh of relief when Real Madrid reappointed Zinedine Zidane manager, perhaps it sent a shiver down Chelsea spines.
It is no secret Zidane is Eden Hazard’s hero, or Real his dream move. And yet, as an impasse continues, with Hazard reluctant to extend a Chelsea contract that expires in 2020, the grimmer reality may be that Zidane’s presence at the Bernabeu is merely an added bonus.
It feels time for Hazard to go; if not to Real, then somewhere. The sight of Chelsea sixth in the table, having only taken one more point than Cardiff in their last eight games, should confirm it.
Perhaps Hazard has outgrown Chelsea. Perhaps, though, they have shrunk.
When he joined in 2012, he signed for the reigning European champions. They were a destination club, one who had not lost a player they wanted keep since Gianfranco Zola’s homecoming to Cagliari nine years earlier. Hazard chose Chelsea ahead of the Manchester clubs.
Now, however, they are no longer the richest or the biggest spenders. If they never had the largest ground and were never the biggest club, now they do not possess the finest manager or the best players.
They have been stripped of pre-eminence, rebranded as one of the chasing pack.
Decline has not been a uniform process – Antonio Conte interrupted it to win the title in 2017 – but it feels a theme. The squad has been downgraded.
Kepa Arrizabalaga is a lesser goalkeeper than Thibaut Courtois was. Both Gonzalo Higuain, whose only goals have come against the 2019/20 Championship sides Fulham and Huddersfield Town, and the loaned-out Alvaro Morata are inferior strikers than the talismanic Diego Costa.
Some of Chelsea’s ageing side are not as good as they used to be. It leaves Hazard and N’Golo Kante, players almost any side would covet, looking more of anomalies. An impending transfer ban means Chelsea could get weaker, not stronger.
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It feels a decline that has exacerbated a reliance on Hazard, on him to glide past defenders with that jinking elusiveness, on his capacity to compensate for the bluntness of their strikers by doubling up as creator and scorer.
None of the top six is as dependent on one man, and yet Chelsea’s travails may deny him both the rightful platform and a fair appreciation of his efforts.
Select a side of the season now and this choice would be for Sadio Mane and Raheem Sterling to take the spots on the wings. Yet is that because their goals seem to assume a greater importance than Hazard’s as they may determine the title?
Mane and Sterling have been terrific, but neither is as inherently inventive as Hazard. Each benefits from a better calibre of teammate.
So did Hazard during a World Cup when he was voted its second best player. If there were mitigating circumstances, Chelsea have had plenty of time to repent the short-sighted decisions to let Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah leave.
None realised his potential at Stamford Bridge. Hazard has.
He has a century of goals for Chelsea. He has won every major honour bar the Uefa Champions League and, even if they qualify for next season’s competition, it is ever harder to imagine him winning it there.
Hazard deserves a place on the shortlist for the title of Chelsea’s greatest player, with Zola, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Peter Osgood. He also ranks as a Premier League great.
But greatness comes in many guises, and Real and the European elite promise a kind of it that Chelsea no longer possess.
Updated: March 19, 2019 08:17 AM