x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Premier League preview: Hazard can light up Chelsea's new-look attack

The 21-year-old Belgium winger has been Roberto di Matteo's biggest summer signing - and is being tipped to make an immediate impact in the Premier League.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard, center, competes with Manchester City's James Milner, left, during their English FA Community Shield soccer match at Villa Park stadium, Birmingham, England, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan) *** Local Caption *** Britain Soccer Community Shield.JPEG-0976f.jpg
Chelsea's Eden Hazard, center, competes with Manchester City's James Milner, left, during their English FA Community Shield soccer match at Villa Park stadium, Birmingham, England, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan) *** Local Caption *** Britain Soccer Community Shield.JPEG-0976f.jpg

Eden Hazard, the most expensive newcomer to the Premier League of the summer so far, learnt a good deal from his first competitive experience of English football.

First, he appreciated quickly that the Community Shield, where his new club Chelsea lost 3-2 to Manchester City, can be as robust and raucous as any cup final, even if it is a mere curtain-raiser to the campaign and part of its purpose is raising money for good causes.

There was little charity in the attitude some of City's supporters showed to Hazard, nor in some of the tackles during Sunday's contest between last year's champions and the FA Cup winners.

Hazard had a vivid introduction to English football. He was routinely booed by City fans from his first touch of the ball - itself a smooth, assured turn just inside the opposition half - because, in May, he chose to join Chelsea in spite of some sustained, alternative interest from the holders of the English league title. The jeers did not stifle him, though.

The 21-year-old Belgian was keen to make himself available for passes and, at times. linked up promisingly with Juan Mata, one of a growing cadre of nimble, creative attacking midfielders now on Chelsea's roster. Oscar, the Brazilian, is the most recent to arrive; Marko Marin, the Germany winger, is another fresh face for the new term.

But Hazard is the most celebrated, the one carrying the greatest immediate expectations. Chelsea paid close to €40 million (Dh181m) to Lille for French football's 2011 and 2012 Player of the Year, and they hope Hazard will bring the same drive, creativity and regular goals to a tougher environment than France's Ligue 1.

There is an element of risk in the transfer in as far as Hazard is young and relatively unproven at what will be a significantly higher level.

The whiz-kid from Wallonia had been on the radar of the wealthier European clubs for some time.

His background meant that if he had the talent, he was always likely to make accelerated progress in the game. The eldest of four children, Hazard was brought up in a family of French-speaking Belgians, all keen on football.

His father Thierry played as a midfielder in the second division, while his mother, Carine, was scoring goals in the top-flight of Belgium's women's league until she retired early in her first pregnancy, in 1990. Eden was born the next year.

So he inherited good genes and also sound advice from his parents. "It was a great help for him to have a father who knew the professional game," said Philippe Albert, the former Belgium international and Newcastle United player, now a summariser on Belgian television.

"I think Thierry helped Eden keep his feet on the ground when he achieved so much so young."

Both parents are said to have approved the teenager's move across the border, to France, because they felt the standard of youth training would be higher there. As a scholar at Lille's academy, he was living only 80 kilometres from the family home.

He made his Ligue 1 debut for Lille at 16, was the French Players' Union Young Player of the Year at the end of his first full season in the first-team squad, 2008/09.

In spite of his small, wiry frame, a toughness about him had become apparent by then. He started all but a handful of Ligue 1 matches over the past four years, a remarkable fortitude for a specialist dribbler, who does get fouled, and earns an elevated number of free kicks. He has needed to be robust.

"One thing you notice in the French league straightaway is how physically tough it is, with a lot of big, strong players," said Joe Cole, who last season was Hazard's club colleague at Lille.

His regularity in the line-up was also a counter-argument to stories which circulated at one stage that Hazard was not the most enthusiastic trainer. This is not, apparently, anything to do with timekeeping or attendance, of which there have been no complaints, but rather that he was not always first with his hand raised to volunteer for tiring, stamina-specific drills.

So far, Roberto Di Matteo, the Chelsea manager, is happy with what he has seen of Hazard in training.

"He has a lot of good qualities and he's shown them in practice," said the Italian. "I'm very excited by him. But let's give him a chance to settle. He's still young."

Hazard's repertoire includes plenty that should excite the Premier League. He is principally right footed, but likes to cut in from wide on the left, where Lille mostly used him. He has a sharp turn of pace and many of his more spectacular goals - he scored 21 for Lille last season - have come from passes played in front of him. He has also been a prolific provider, which should please Fernando Torres, the Chelsea centre-forward.

Whether his repertoire in English football will also include theatrical attempts to win free kicks remains to be seen. One moment early in Sunday's Community Shield will have warned Hazard that to be perceived as a diver, a simulator, will inflame opposition fans.

He reacted melodramatically to a challenge from Yaya Toure, earning him further noisy opprobrium from spectators. It also angered Toure.

So it was that the City fans felt delighted, later, to see an attempted back-pass from Hazard leave the bumptious Belgian flat on his face, having missed contact with the ball.

He had lost his footing completely, on a surface made slippery by earlier rain. He will have more elegant moments in the months ahead, many of them.


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