Sunday 19 August 2018

Wembley hero Hazard underlines value to Chelsea

Chelsea's Eden Hazard with the trophy. Photo: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters
Chelsea's Eden Hazard with the trophy. Photo: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters

Matt Law

It was the ultimate act of player power and yet nobody at Chelsea flinched. Having scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final, Eden Hazard revealed he would wait for the club to sign "good players" before deciding his future.

There are not many who could get away with challenging owner Roman Abramovich in such a way, but the Belgian is undoubtedly a special case.

He and Chelsea both know the club cannot afford to lose him. He is the stardust, the man the sponsors love, the player who can elevate the team to a different level - as he showed again in his 300th Blues appearance against Manchester United at Wembley.

It is why the fear that Hazard could look to leave Stamford Bridge if Antonio Conte stays for the final year of his contract is a major factor in a decision over the managerial situation that should now be made imminently.

If it is a choice between Conte and Hazard, the Italian goes. And there would be more than a passing thought given to whether or not any potential successor would please the Belgian.

With Chelsea unable to outspend their rivals these days, Hazard is irreplaceable. Despite challenging him in public on a few occasions, Jose Mourinho was well aware of Hazard's importance during his second spell at the club. That is why he would tell his star man his transfer plans while others were left in the dark.

Conte is not the type to indulge any player to that degree and it became an issue when he asked Hazard to sacrifice himself in the false nine position earlier in the season, and then questioned his commitment in private.

Chelsea have already lost Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Romelu Lukaku in recent years and cannot allow a similar scenario to play out with Hazard. They must at least fight to keep him. Fortunately, Conte has since let Hazard loose in a position just off Olivier Giroud and the improvement in the 27-year-old's performances has been stark.

It is not just his talent on the pitch that makes Hazard such a popular figure in the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge. His uncomplicated personality is hugely appreciated. He does not have an agent or a pushy PR team and drove himself to the meeting in which he signed his last big contract with the club.

There is an appreciation that he could have agitated to move after the 10th-place finish a couple of years ago, as Diego Costa and others did. While goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois throws out hints and suggestions that he wants to return to Spain, Hazard has remained far more respectful. He knows Real Madrid have toyed with the idea of signing him for many years and yet he has always maintained that he is happy with his life in London.

Chelsea are aware that a big offer from Real may be too much for Hazard to turn down, but they are also confident he would never push to join a Premier League rival - no matter how highly Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola might rate him.

The contract worth in excess of £300,000-a-week that has been waiting for Hazard's signature for almost a year may well have gone up by a few digits after he showed Phil Jones a clean pair of heels yesterday. Jones could only hack him down and Hazard got up to take the coolest of penalties and beat arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, David De Gea.

It was just another example of why the Belgian, who Mourinho tried to man-mark out of the game with Ander Herrera, is a cut above and can make demands of his club. Herrera could not keep up with Hazard for much of the game and Antonio Valencia was booked for hacking him down once too often.

It may not be appreciated by the purists, but Chelsea should listen to Hazard and make the summer about keeping him happy. If they don't, then whoever the manager is will have the toughest of jobs on his hands.

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