Thursday 20 June 2019

Jamie Carragher: Eden Hazard is best player in Premier League - but there is one area he can improve

Eden Hazard celebrates his winning goal against Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday. Photo: Lee Smith/Reuters
Eden Hazard celebrates his winning goal against Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday. Photo: Lee Smith/Reuters

Jamie Carragher

If Manchester City win the title this season, it will be partially due to their great players, but ultimately because of the influence of their manager. Similarly, if Liverpool break their league duck that stretches almost three decades, it will be partially due to their great players, but ultimately because of the influence of their manager.

If Chelsea win the title this season, it will be partially due to their great manager, but ultimately because of the influence of Eden Hazard.

Hazard is the Premier League's best player. I said it during my commentary as Chelsea defeated Liverpool in the first of the two meetings this week. This judgment is based on the last six years, not the first six games of this season.

There are outstanding rivals worthy of inclusion in this debate; Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah, Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane and David Silva are among the best. All possess special qualities.

De Bruyne and Silva are artists with the ball. Kane, Aguero and Salah are killers in and around the penalty area.

Hazard brings something the others do not - dribbling ability, running at pace, beating several men from deep before delivering a spectacular finish. He has the capacity to make you shout 'wow', as I did when he scored the goal that knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup.

Prolific

We tend to rate such individuals above those other technical players whose forte is wonderful passing or prolific goalscoring. Throughout football history it is dribblers lifting us off our seat, whether it is George Best, Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi. They win most votes when considered the best of all time. That is why most people rank Messi above Ronaldo.

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Hazard was selected in FIFA's recent World XI ahead of De Bruyne, Silva and Salah. His manager, Maurizio Sarri, believes he is reaching another level.

"I thought Hazard was one of the best players in Europe, but now I am changing my mind. He is the best," he said.

It is premature to put him on the same pedestal as Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi. Partially because of their talent and consistency over a decade, but also because of a quality which can be a blessing to Chelsea and a possible obstacle to Hazard being perceived in the same way as the greatest of their generation.

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Ross Barkley touched on this after Hazard's brilliant solo goal at Anfield.

"Eden is not selfish," he said.

This is meant as a compliment. 'Selfishness' can be considered a dirty word in football, a sport where the team ethic is everything. Then you look at someone like Ronaldo and his relentless desire to mop up every individual honour takes him to a higher plain.

A big ego can fuel success. Ronaldo and Messi's personal battles to be top scorers in La Liga and the Champions League, or win the Ballon d'Or, elevated their status.

Hazard admits he does not possess this single-minded desire to break goalscoring records. The most he has in a season at Chelsea is 23. There has always been a feeling he can do more.

He has often spoken about his main ambition is to enjoy his football, playing with a smile. Given what he has won, he can argue it has worked for him.

I remember Joe Cole returning to Liverpool after a season on loan at Lille in 2011-'12, raving about the young Belgian he was playing alongside. He was telling us his old club had signed the next superstar. Hazard has certainly met expectations.

He has won the title twice and a European trophy. He virtually single-handedly won his club the FA Cup last season. He was PFA and FWA Player of the Year in 2015 and should have been given the same title in 2017. He has achieved plenty and can win more, assisted by Sarri's change of style at Stamford Bridge.

Under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, initial success was built on strength at the back rather than all-out attack.

Their unsuccessful title defences saw them revert to more negative football, which did not suit Hazard. It led to dips in form. Remember his unhappy demeanour when played as a lone striker at Manchester City last season? It looked like he wanted out - a stark contrast to his mood now.

Hazard could have used the World Cup to raise his profile off the field as much as on it. Had Belgium beaten France in the semi-final, I believe he would have been named player of the tournament.

A different personality would have pushed more to join Real Madrid in the summer. There is no guarantee Chelsea would have sold but there could still have been a pre-season of agitation.

Had he said he did not want to sacrifice a season of Champions League football and commit to another rebuilding job, only the most blinkered Chelsea supporter would have disagreed.

You have to admire him for not pursuing a possible transfer more vigorously, although my suspicion is the real reason he is not at Madrid already is because they cannot afford him while he is under contract.

Last summer's £200 million transfer of Neymar to Paris St-Germain messed up market valuations to such an extent Madrid do not have the cash to make a realistic bid. When Philippe Coutinho moved to Barcelona for £142m my first thought was, 'how much must Hazard be worth?'

Longer

The longer Hazard goes without signing a new deal at Chelsea, the more likely it seems he will end up at the Bernabeu.

A decision looms and it may be the brand of football Sarri has introduced at Stamford Bridge is the best hope of getting him to commit his future.

Chelsea's recent history as the ultimate yo-yo club - dropping out of the top four in one season and winning the title with a new coach the next - means it is not a typical 'rebuild' under Sarri.

A victory over Liverpool this evening will confirm the possibility of Sarri repeating the success of Conte, winning the Premier League in his first season. He knows Hazard is the reason why.

Whether Hazard accepts a 30-goal target for this season or not, he has the ability to reach it.

And having failed to replace Diego Costa, it is obvious why the Chelsea coaching staff are pushing him to hit these numbers. He will need to score that many for Chelsea to win the title. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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