A Premier League icon – his Real Madrid decline was painful

When he won the first of two league titles at Chelsea in 2014-2015, his third season in English football, he was, by some distance, the outstanding player in the Premier League. This was Jose Mourinho’s second season of his second spell at Chelsea and Hazard, winning the PFA and FWA individual awards that year, was his preeminent player. This was in the heart of the dominance of the Ballon d’Or by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but Hazard, eighth in that list in 2015, and just 24, looked well placed to be at the tip of the next generation. It would turn out to be his highest finish.

The following season he bombed. The 2015-2016 season was his worst in English football, with just six goals for Chelsea, of which there were just four in the Premier League. The first did not come until April. Mourinho had long since been sacked. Just as abruptly as Hazard’s form had disappeared so it returned the following season under Antonio Conte when Chelsea regained the title. Hazard’s goalscoring recommenced and he was injury free.

In an era when the weight of the numbers dominated – the relentless goalscoring of the big two in La Liga – Hazard never looked like he would keep pace. Indeed, it never looked like it mattered that much. His general insouciance about the game, and the pre-match stories about Mario Kart sessions in the dressing room, right up to the last minutes before the bell rang in the tunnel, all fit the character.

It was part of the charm, and an intrinsic element of Hazard’s improvised style. There were no moody goal celebrations that sought to advance the cult of the individual, or answer a criticism.

Hazard was generally always fit for Chelsea. He never played fewer than 30 league games a season, and three times played more than 35. It was Mourinho who prophesied the injury problems that would engulf Hazard at Real. At Chelsea from 2014 to his sacking two and a half years later, it was a familiar post-match lament of Mourinho that not enough protection was afforded to his star player.

“People [are] in love with football in this country so people must be in love with Eden Hazard,” Mourinho said on Jan 1, 2015. “Match after match, he’s being punished by opponents and not being protected by referees. Maybe one day we don’t have Eden Hazard. They kick, and kick, and kick, and kick.”

Mourinho’s observation about the threat to Hazard came after a defeat, and not just any defeat. It was a 5-3 win for Tottenham at White Hart Lane that shocked the title-chasing Chelsea. The defeat would convince Mourinho to see out the title with a much more risk-averse style, and within 12 months he would be sacked when his title defence collapsed. Hazard had four and a half more years at Chelsea until the problems overwhelmed him at Real.


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