Saturday 19 October 2019

Dominic FiField: 'Divorce will be amicable when serial flirt departs'

Eden Hazard is on his way to Real Madrid. Photo: PA
Eden Hazard is on his way to Real Madrid. Photo: PA

Dominic FiField

Eden Hazard's plan was always to go out on a high. That was clear even when times were toughest, a little over three years ago, as the incoming Chelsea head coach paid a visit to Cobham training ground. Antonio Conte, still Italy's national team manager, was not due to take up the reins at Stamford Bridge until after the European Championship, but planning for the role he would assume required reassurances from an ailing stellar player.

Hazard was entrenched in the first prolonged slump in form of a seven-year senior career. He had endured 28 scoreless league appearances, stretching back to the goal against Crystal Palace that had clinched the title in May the previous year.

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A persistent hip injury had blunted the Belgian through the unravelling of José Mourinho's second stint in charge and, with the side hopelessly adrift of the top four, a player who had never hidden his desire to turn out for Real Madrid had been left contemplating a season without the prestige of Champions League football.

Conte knew he was inheriting a team on their knees and felt compelled to convince the talismanic forward that there would be an upturn on his arrival, his impassioned sales pitch centring on the free role Hazard would play in a 3-4-3. As it happened, all the Italian's fears were misplaced. "I made clear to him I had no intention of leaving after such a poor year," the forward would reflect eight months on. "I didn't want to go out like that. If I ever leave, it'll be after winning a title. You need to go out on a high so that people remember you for the right reasons."

That strategy has not wavered since.

The parting of the ways might have happened in the summer of 2017 when Conte's Chelsea were crowned champions. The player was keen to leave in 2018, suggesting publicly in St Petersburg that the time might be right to move on, after Belgium's World Cup third-place play-off win over England. He had helped his club to the FA Cup, earning and converting the penalty to beat Mourinho's Manchester United, despite the discord festering over the last few months of Conte's tenure.

Now, all parties seem to accept an amicable divorce is imminent. In Wednesday's Europa League final, confronted in Baku by an Arsenal side whom he has scarred so regularly during his seven years in England, Hazard has an opportunity to fulfil his pledge and sign off with another trophy. A fee has yet to be agreed with Real, suitors whose interest is relentless if rarely backed up by bids. But even with a two-window transfer ban hanging over Chelsea, the possibility of raising £100m for a player who would be worth nothing next summer cannot go ignored.

The exit of someone so cherished by key members of the club will only be sanctioned reluctantly. Their relationship had begun with a tweet. Well, in truth, it had actually started with months of mischievous hints as to his preferred destination as the cream of the Premier League circled round a player who had excelled in Ligue 1 with Lille. The sight of Chelsea winning the Champions League made a difference.

That 'I'm signing for the champion's [sic] league winner' tweet pinged out on May 28, 2012, nine days after the shoot-out victory against Bayern in Munich, merely confirmed the summer's worst-kept £32m secret.

In hindsight, that was a fine year for a recruitment department who had secured Bolton's Gary Cahill and a young Kevin De Bruyne from Genk in January, and would add Hazard and César Azpilicueta in the close season. It is easy to forgive the odd Marko Marin in that context.

The wave of new talent reflected the sense that a great team - Didier Drogba and John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, Petr Cech and Branislav Ivanovic - had peaked at the Allianz Arena. Stalwarts were approaching the twilight of glittering careers, the break-up of Mourinho's first side well under way. It was time for a new breed. The years since have seen Diego Costa and David Luiz stamp their characters on this club, while Azpilicueta's consistent excellence must still warm even those who spied something in him at Marseille. N'Golo Kanté, too, is rightly lauded for his diligent impact. Yet all who have come and gone have looked to Hazard for inspiration.

He has been integral to all the trophies won - the two league titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup - bar the Europa League in 2013, when his first season in English football had been curtailed prematurely by injury. When he dazzled, most notably under Mourinho in 2014-15 and Conte in 2016-17, the collective appeared irresistible. He won the players' and writers' player of the year awards in 2015 after that first league triumph. He has illuminated occasions with that familiar scuttling pace, all elusive darts and Velcro close control, with a showreel of goals. Lampard considers him "one of the great players in Chelsea's history". He is certainly the closest they have had to a Gianfranco Zola in the Roman Abramovich era, and the Italian acknowledges Hazard may actually have eclipsed his own startling ability.

The winner to claim the title against Palace four years ago was scrappy, but plenty have been unforgettable. He effectively scored the goal that secured Leicester the league in 2016, a whipped finish at pace against Tottenham n the bedlam of Stamford Bridge. "I said when he signed he would be the greatest player the club has ever had, and I stand by that," said Joe Cole, once a team-mate at Lille. "He is the best I've ever worked with."

Even Cole would have appreciated the wonderful waltz through the West Ham ranks last month, though Hazard's best goal was arguably plundered at Arsenal's expense in happier times under Conte. He shrugged off challenges at will in that sprint. The memory endures of Francis Coquelin collapsing haplessly to the floor having failed to barge the Belgian off the ball. That capacity to humiliate has prompted rough retaliation. The attempts to bring him down, by whatever means, have been a recurring theme. It had taken Wigan's Gary Caldwell 11 minutes to floor the new arrival on his debut in 2012 - the first brutal tackle aimed at snuffing out his threat - though by then Hazard had already created the visitors' two goals.

He has grown used to spending the aftermath of matches icing ankles kicked raw. Tally it up and the 28-year-old has been fouled 638 times in the Premier League - once every half-hour, or 26 touches of the ball - yet only Azpilicueta of the division's other outfield players has played more top-flight games in the past seven years. He is durable, too.

Some will still wonder if they could have seen more. He has matured from the young man who once kicked a ballboy in frustration, or lost his place having returned late from Belgium after mislaying his passport. Yet it is telling that all six head coaches under whom he has worked have suggested he has the potential to rise to the level of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Even Maurizio Sarri has mixed platitudes with talk of potential.

Most have delighted in his attacking best, when he has been given free rein, only to imply criticisms of a lack of defensive nous when results have deteriorated.

The player never really warmed to those stints as a false No 9 and was unsettled during the latter days of Conte's stewardship when he felt restrained. Coaches' tendency to revert to a more conservative style when the team were enduring a downturn in results would leave him feeling shackled.

He admitted this year that he has ultimately "frustrated all my managers - Mourinho, Conte, now Sarri - and I'll frustrate the next manager I have, too". That, presumably, will be Zinedine Zidane.

But, for all the flirting with Real, Hazard has always been a favourite. Chelsea never panicked after those comments in St Petersburg, fearing either a sulk or a strike if he did not secure his move. Thibaut Courtois went AWOL. His compatriot reported back for pre-season and, once up to speed, had eight goals to his name by early October. He has been settled in Cobham with his young family, enjoying the quiet life as part of the community. It is just that now he feels the time has come for a fresh challenge. He will be missed.

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