Sunday 25 February 2018

All is rosy in the garden of Eden

Belgian star is the league's most fouled player - but he's still smiling

Now in his third season with Chelsea, Eden Hazard is one of the Premier League's biggest stars
Now in his third season with Chelsea, Eden Hazard is one of the Premier League's biggest stars

Sam Wallace

The most fouled man in the Premier League has a spring in his step, and if the opponents charged with stopping Eden Hazard by any means necessary are having an effect then when we meet this week it does not show.

When he strolls through the door at Chelsea's training ground, Hazard does not look like a man who plays football in fear of the next challenge; he looks like he does not have a care in the world.

It is his third season at Chelsea and the 24-year-old Belgian is now one of the Premier League's biggest stars. He signed a new contract this month to stay until 2020 at least, and by that time the expectation is that he will have added considerably to the one trophy he has won so far at Chelsea, the Europa League in 2013, starting with tomorrow's Capital One Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.

Hazard was one of the goalscorers in the 5-3 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane on New Year's Day and when that game is mentioned, he shrugs and points out that Chelsea beat Spurs at Stamford Bridge at the start of December.

"It's true it was a bad day but the first time we met them we won 3-0," he says, "so that's in balance over the two matches. Now we need to win the third match."

Hazard is a glass-half-full kind of character, the sort of winger who will gladly reach out a hand to haul a full-back to his feet, even if the opponent in question has spent the game kicking him.

It's an endearing trait, and while you might expect it to drive Jose Mourinho mad, even the Chelsea manager seems to admire it.

Never more so than in the 2-0 win over Stoke City in Dec­ember when Phil B­ardsley almost put one of Hazard's legs in the stand with a challenge in the first half. After the break, the English full-back went down with an injury and, in possession at the time, Hazard noticed and kicked the ball out so that Bardsley could have treatment. "I wouldn't do it for a player who kicked me," Mourinho joked afterwards. "It shows the kid is fantastic."

Remembers

Hazard remembers the moment in the game but he says it never occurred to him to do anything different. "That's my mentality. Just because somebody has fouled me there is no reason for me to be nasty to him. I try to respect football as much as possible and when someone is injured you put the ball out."

As for the fouls on him, the numbers are inarguable. Hazard has played 2,301 minutes of Premier League football over 26 appearances this season, according to the statistics website whoscored.com. Over that period he has been fouled 75 times, an average of a foul every 30 minutes. In the Champions League - 534 minutes over six appearances encompassing 28 fouls on him - that frequency rises to a foul every 19 minutes.

By way of comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo is fouled on average every 55 minutes of football he plays in La Liga and every 51 minutes he plays in the Champions League. For Lionel Messi, the frequency is even lower: a foul every 124 minutes in La Liga games, every 121 minutes in the Champions League. Hazard is not even the player who has drawn the most bookings in the Premier League, despite being the most fouled. We could go on.

He tries not to worry about it too much. Hazard says that as a kid growing up in Braine-le-Comte, south-west of Brussels, with his football-obsessed family he also did a bit of judo, which helps now. "I learnt how to fall safely. I was only doing it at a low-level. I wasn't a black belt!"

He hardly ever gets injured and, although he is small, there is a lot of core power. Like many prodigies he has always played with older boys and been forced to compensate for his size. From the academy at Lille to life in the Premier League he seems to adapt. He uses the French "rugueux" to describe the typical profile of defenders in English football - "rough" or "rugged" - but if it bothers him, he doesn't show it.

"I have always thought if there is a game and there have been a lot of fouls on me then I have been playing well for the team, so that means we're having a good match," he says. "You can win a free-kick when there's a foul and that's a chance to score a goal.

"I have always been small so defenders have always been taller and tougher than me. So that's difficult for me, they foul me sometimes but there you are - that's what the rules of the game are for."

Absence

It is the absence of anger or annoyance that has always been striking about Hazard. His only red card in E­ngland has been for the ballboy i­ncident at Swansea in the 2013 Capital One Cup but, other than that, he has picked up just seven bookings since joining Chelsea and only two this season, when arguably he has been targeted more than ever.

"I don't see the point in reacting," he says. "True, it's a human response but it is the way I have been brought up. I have been used to taking the knocks. The more I take, the happier I am. It always makes me want to outdo them but in a football way and I don't want to make their life a misery by kicking them. I want to hurt the opponent but in terms of the football.

"That (Swansea) was the only one (red card) - it's true that I don't normally get red cards. I am still young. Maybe with age it will come. Maybe I will become more aggressive but I hope not."

In recent weeks, Mourinho has taken the debate back to what he considers the lack of protection for his player, especially after the Paris Saint-Germain Champions League first-leg tie, in which the French team broke the competition record for the most fouls on one opponent - nine on Hazard. Mourinho suggested new shin pads that protect his calves as well, but the Chelsea manager seems to be making a point to referees.

"I know when I was in France there was a moment when the (Lille) coach Rudi Garcia pointed his finger at refs who should have been protecting me," Hazard says. "I hope they do try to protect me because they should be protecting the players who are playing the ball. That is the point of it. All we want is that there is a bit of consistency."

A young Ryan Giggs would tell stories about how opposing full-backs would warn him of the consequences of humiliating them, and that there were times when Bryan Robson would switch positions with his teenage team-mate to sort out individuals. Hazard has a more 21st-century approach to the problem.

"The more you play against teams and defenders, the more you get to know them. You know if they are more nervous, you know on the pitch people are different. I try to adapt to their character.

"It is true that when I was younger - mind you, I'm still young - there were defenders, mostly in France who would say to me: 'Go gently, otherwise I will break your leg'. But it has always been friendly! Now I am no longer entitled to the friendliness, we've gone beyond that point. It's part of the intimidation. It is what defenders do. If they don't have the quality on the ball, it's what they do."

Tense

Asked who his most difficult opponent is, he talks about the team-mates he faces in training and then alights on Pablo Zabaleta. "It's always a tense game with lots of conflict and he is always right behind me - it keeps you up right on your toes." If anything it sounds like he enjoys it.

What of Mourinho? The perception is that the Chelsea manager changed Hazard. That he turned him from an all-out attacker into more of a team player. Hazard sees it differently; very differently, in fact.

"It's true we do have a special relationship. What is good about him as a coach is that he lets us play. He lets me play. He is not always on at me and I really appreciate that. If it isn't good he says so, if it is good he says so. He is always direct. But I don't think he has changed me. He has taught me to become more professional and to be better on the pitch. I don't think I have changed my mentality. You can't change that. I am who I am. He has always taught me to get the best out of myself."

Before we finish we talk about the possibility of those futuristic, wrap-around shin pads. I ask him if he often comes off the pitch with bruises all over his lower legs. "Sometimes," he says, but he is smiling when he answers. (© Independent News Service)

 

• Eden Hazard's parents Thierry and Carine both played football.

His younger brother Thorgan, 21, has just left Chelsea for Borussia Mönchengladbach for £6m. "It's not easy for him [with a famous older brother]," Eden says. "I would like to have played with him as soon as possible, now the most important thing for him is to settle down at a club."

Kylian, 19, is at Zulte W­aregem in the Belgian Pro League.

Ethan, 10, plays for his local team, Tubize.

Independent News Service

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