Monday 20 November 2017

Hazard eager to make up for lost time on big stage

Concentration is the name of the game for Eden Hazard against Leicester. Photo by Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
Concentration is the name of the game for Eden Hazard against Leicester. Photo by Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

John Percy

Eden Hazard was so frustrated at missing last season's Champions League that he could not even watch it on television.

But Chelsea and Hazard will be returning to our screens this week, after a year's painful hiatus, with the Belgian winger determined to add a winner's medal to his collection.

Chelsea start their latest European adventure against Azerbaijani champions FK Qarabag at Stamford Bridge tomorrow in a demanding group which also includes Atletico Madrid and Roma.

Hazard will be available for Antonio Conte after coming through his first club game since last season's FA Cup final as a substitute in the 2-1 win at Leicester.

And there is clearly unfinished business for the 26-year-old.

Important

"This year is really important. I have reached the semi-final with Chelsea (in 2014), when we lost to Atletico Madrid, so it's in my head to win this trophy," he said.

"I have won the Premier League, I have won the title in France, I have won cups, but big players always want to win the Champions League. I think now it is time to win this. We have a good squad, we have a good manager, so we are ready for it.

"You want to play these kind of games because, every time you play in the Champions League, it's a big game and everybody is watching you. I hate having to watch it on TV, I just want to be on the pitch. That isn't a good feeling so, yes, we are happy to be back."

Chelsea have not progressed beyond the round of 16 in their past two European campaigns and the big test will be if their narrow squad can cope with so many games.

Conte missed out on a number of targets in the transfer window, including Romelu Lukaku, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley, and will now be competing on four fronts.

The future of Diego Costa also remains uncertain, with the troublesome striker tipped to return to Chelsea soon after his hopes of a move to Atletico collapsed.

Hazard, who played the final 12 minutes after suffering a broken ankle at the end of last season, said: "We've got seven games in three weeks and it's completely different from last season, but we are professionals and we understand this kind of situation.

"We just want to play. If sometimes players are tired, somebody else can come into the team - we don't have a problem with that."

Chelsea's victory at the King Power Stadium provided more evidence that the chaotic opening-day defeat by Burnley was a one-off result.

Alvaro Morata's header, from Cesar Azpilicueta's sublime cross, gave them the lead and the £55m signing appears made to measure for English football.

Morata and Chelsea swiftly condemned the anti-Semitic song about the striker that could be heard from the away end and will hope that prevents a Football Association investigation.

The chant cast a shadow over another impressive performance from the Spaniard, who now has three headed goals since that move from Real Madrid, although it was his striker's continual improvement which was of more significance to Conte.

"It is always important for a striker to score but for me it is important he is improving and always more involved in our football," said the Italian.

While the pre-match focus was on Danny Drinkwater's return, it was another former Leicester midfielder, N'Golo Kante, who provided the crucial contribution with the second goal, catching out Kasper Schmeichel from 30 yards.

Leicester did respond, with Jamie Vardy scoring from the penalty spot, but Chelsea held firm to secure victory.

Kante, who won the title with Leicester before moving to Chelsea, refused to celebrate his goal in front of his old fans.

He said: "I am happy to score and to help the team win this game. It is always special to score against your old team and to help the team to win.

"Everyone knows I spent an amazing year here but I wanted to respect the stadium, the fans and not to do too much with my celebration."

Antics

It has been a tough start for Leicester manager Craig Shakespeare and Saturday suggested Riyad Mahrez still has some bridge-building to do with the Foxes supporters after his deadline-day antics.

Mahrez was disappointing, often choosing the wrong pass, but captain Wes Morgan is backing the winger to recover.

"He's had a good start to the season and against the bigger teams he might find it a bit more difficult," he said. "But he's always been spot on with his attitude so far and he knows that we need him."

Leicester have a solitary victory from their opening four matches and are hovering just a place above the top flight's bottom three.

However, the mood in the camp is far from despondent, with Vardy insisting: "We are still upbeat. We have had Arsenal away, Man United away and Chelsea at home and we have played well in each of those games. The performances have been good. We have to keep that up and the points will come.

"We have definitely left everything out there but it wasn't enough in the end. We were a bit disappointed with the first goal but up until that point it was an even game.

"We made changes at half-time to try and get back into it but they have scored again. But after that we have had quite a few chances and got ourselves back in it but it wasn't enough in the end. © Daily Telegraph, London.

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