Thursday 23 November 2017

Duke of Hazard fails to prove his worth under heat of Paris spotlight

Belgian blows chance to show he belongs on grander stage

Eden Hazard (PA)
Eden Hazard (PA)

Paul Hayward

Eden Hazard thinks it would be "difficult to say no to PSG". But the way he played here, it would be easy for PSG to say no to Eden Hazard.

The old Chelsea spirit was on show, all right, but not from the side's most valuable asset, who gave way to Oscar on 70 minutes after failing to match the efforts of his team-mates, who battled PSG all night in a compelling encounter.

The Chelsea players the French club's Qatari owners might have coveted were Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic, who were superb as understudy centre-backs, and Thibaut Courtois, the goalkeeper who defied so many PSG attacks before Edinson Cavani struck the winner in a 2-1 victory.

Frankly, Hazard was Chelsea's worst player - easy to dispossess and blunt going forward - and a period of self-reflection beckons.

An interview published at the worst possible point in their Champions League campaign placed last season's No 1 Premier League player under a brutal spotlight that was trained as much on his attitude as his talent.

Openly flirting with your Round of 16 opponents in a season that threatens to end up on the dust heap is not clever, unless you then go to Paris and rip the recipient of your overtures apart.

If Hazard made life hard for himself, Paris Saint-Germain made it a good deal harder for Guus Hiddink's men with an effervescent start and a free-kick driven in by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who else, six minutes before the interval. In between Chelsea caused Laurent Blanc's team problems, especially when Diego Costa forced Kevin Trapp to tip a header on to the bar, and then equalised with a collector's item of a goal from John Obi Mikel, who had earlier been booked (less of a shock) and had deflected Ibrahimovic's free-kick past Courtois.

The small wedge of Chelsea fans who came here not expecting much were understandably delighted to see Mikel's fifth goal in 10 years at the club and goaded the Paris crowd with a surprisingly ornate chant: 'Champions of Europe, you'll never be that'. Those Chelsea supporters crossed the Channel fearing, naturally, that Hazard had become the very symbol of their club's problems. Big star one year, lethargic and seemingly detached a few months later. After the collapse in league form under Jose Mourinho, nothing could worry Chelsea's followers like the thought that all the big names are secretly plotting to get away on the grounds that Stamford Bridge is now a cul-de-sac.

They can just about tolerate the constant managerial sackings, though they were angry about how Mourinho was treated. But Hazard, Oscar, Cesc Fabregas and Costa all either restless or not wanted by the club? That speaks to them of possible disintegration in a year when John Terry has been purged and the identity of the next permanent manager is still unknown.

So over to you, the Duke of Hazard, to display some loyalty, some fight, for a team who will almost certainly be absent from this competition next September. In the first half, though, the best thruster on the pitch was PSG's Lucas, who lacked a killer finish but showed all the energy Hazard paraded around England in 2014-15.

With their 24-point league in the French league, PSG were intent on carrying their domestic superiority into European action; equally, on showing the world their ambitions extend all the way to the hallowed ground routinely occupied by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich (the world Hazard yearned for in his badly-timed interview.)

Overtures, explicit or otherwise, from Real Madrid and PSG are universally assumed to have messed with his head. How else to explain such a precipitous drop in form from a player who used to slash and burn his way through Premier League defences? Injuries aside, Hazard lost his locomotion, his zest and his zeal.

"It is difficult to say no to PSG, or to any of the teams capable of winning the Champions League," he said. "PSG are now in that category. And for me, winning the Champions League is my main aim."

This earned a mild rebuke from Guus Hiddink, who presumably had better things to think about on the eve of a Round of 16 away game. "First he must get fit and show he is a top player and then for Chelsea, which is a top club, he can be of huge value," Hiddink said.

Even before he became Real Madrid head coach, Zinedine Zidane was saying: "After Messi and Ronaldo, Hazard is my favourite player. It is spectacular to see him play. Do I see him going to Real Madrid? I love the player, that's all I will say."

That praise has faded into irrelevance. More: it came to reflect badly on Hazard, who is currently unworthy of such a eulogy.

This game was his chance to show that he belonged not at a grander club than Chelsea but simply in the starting XI of a team who helped him to all those individual awards. Sorry to report, he blew it. (Daily Telegraph, London)

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