Saturday 20 January 2018

Chelsea banking on Hazard hitting new heights

Chelsea's Eden Hazard during training. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters
Chelsea's Eden Hazard during training. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters

Matt Law

Chelsea are optimistic Eden Hazard will sign a new £300,000-a-week contract and head coach Antonio Conte believes the Belgian is ready to take his career to "another level" in the Champions League.

Hazard knows that Chelsea want to reaffirm his position as the club's highest earner with a huge pay rise and there is encouragement from both sides that the forward will sign an extension to his current deal that is due to expire in 2020.

Despite interest from Real Madrid, Hazard is known to be happy at Chelsea, where he was this summer joined by his 22-year-old brother Kylian, who was signed from Hungarian club Ujpest. As Chelsea prepare for their toughest Champions League Group C assignment against Atletico Madrid, there is a feeling that, despite his recovery from ankle surgery that has restricted him to one start against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, this is Hazard's time to shine against Europe's best.

"I think last season Eden played a really important season, played very well and was very important for us in winning the Premier League," said Conte. "Last season, he showed in every game great talent, to be a really good player. A top player.

"I think this competition is very important for him, but I think it's important for the team, too. This competition brings you to another level. I think Eden has all the possibilities to do this. He's a really top player. Now he's totally fit and in contention for the game. I think it's the right moment."

Hazard has been told he can win the Ballon d'Or at Chelsea, rather than needing to move to Atletico's city rivals Real. But, to do so, he must step up his game on the biggest club stage.

Atletico Madrid’s new stadium. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Atletico Madrid’s new stadium. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The 26-year-old is set to share a pitch with another player tipped to eventually take on Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the highest individual honour in football, Atletico's Antoine Griezmann, who finished third in the 2016 Ballon d'Or.

Griezmann has played 35 times in the Champions League for Atletico scoring 15 goals, and finished as a runner-up with the Spanish club in the 2015/16 season.

For a player who Chelsea are prepared to make the best paid in the club's history and who is valued at well over £100m, Hazard's Champions League statistics make rather modest reading. In 31 appearances in the competition in total for Chelsea, Hazard has scored only five goals - two of which came against Maribor.

Another player who struggled to make an impact for Chelsea in the Champions League is Diego Costa, who has completed his return to Atletico after spending the summer on strike in Brazil.

Costa cannot play for Atletico until January because of the Spaniards' transfer embargo and Cesar Azpilicueta believes the fact the 28-year-old will be in the stands tonight night is a boost for the Blues.

Conte reiterated the fact he will shake Costa's hand if he bumps into the striker, while Azpilicueta said: "Diego has moved to a new club and we have to deal with it. I played with him for two years, we're Spanish team-mates and he's a top striker. Not to play against him is a little advantage for us, it's better for us."

In Costa's absence, Alvaro Morata has scored six times in six Premier League appearances and appears to be relishing the opportunity to be the leading man in attack.

"For the first time, he's having a great chance to start as a number nine, to have the responsibility, the right pressure, and he's responding very well to this pressure," said Conte. "In a new league, in a new country, different habits, different language, different football... to start in this way you must be very strong." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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