Comment - Over-hyped Eden Hazard is justifying his status as the 19th best player in the world
It was the fall from grace that cemented the suspicion that Eden Hazard’s is destined to be an outsider looking in on football’s big show, the moment that confirmed Chelsea’s No.10 as one of the game’s nearly men.
As Chelsea manager Antonio Conte pondered his substitution options at the business end of his side crucial game against Manchester United last month, he didn’t think twice about repeating to a change he has used time and again this season removing Hazard from the latest game he was struggling to affect.
For a second successive season, United manager Jose Mourinho had comprehensively doused the threat posed by an impotent Hazard and this time, his own manager confirmed as much by replacing him in front of the watching world.
Up went the board with No.10 emblazoned on it, forcing Hazard to walk past his old boss Mourinho after his latest Old Trafford no-show and sit out the remaining minutes of a game that could decide his team’s hopes of a top four finish.
With the game in the balance at 1-1, Hazard should have been the star turn Conte could rely on for inspiration as his team went in search of a winning goal, yet he appears to come to the conclusion - just as Mourinho had done in his final months as Chelsea boss in 2015 - that this player cannot be relied upon when the going gets tough.
Remarkably, Chelsea’s highest paid player has completed 90 minutes in the Premier League on just nine occasions so far this season, with a further 16 appearances starting from the bench or ended with Conte replacing him. In addition, he has only finished three out of seven games in the Champions League games this season, with his regular substitutions evidence of his waning influence in Conte’s plans.
This is not how Hazard believed his story would be developing at the age of 27, with his oft-stated desire to join Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo among the ranks of the best footballers on the planet now appearing to be well beyond a player whose ability to turn his talent tap on and off at will is a major character flaw.
Hazard and his management team have helped to promote the notion that their man is a world class player in the making and his persistent desire to link himself with a move to Real Madrid adds to that elite status, yet his contribution on the pitch does not back up the fantasy for this dreamer.
Now, at a moment when he should be in his prime, Hazard is facing up to the reality that he is destined to miss out on his chance to join the game’s elite, with the player handed what some suggested was the modest position at No.19 in the 2017 Ballon d’Or list reflecting the status of the world’s best players now looking a little generous given some of his performances this season.
This Belgian lacks the consistency levels you associate with the game’s true greats and on the days when Chelsea needed him most this season - in damaging defeats against Crystal Palace, West Ham, Bouremouth and against United at Old Trafford - Hazard has gone missing.
He was ineffective once more as Chelsea lost at Manchester City on Sunday and while Conte's negative tactics doing little to help his star man shine on that occasion, this was another missed opportunity for a player who wants to become more than just a Premier League star.
While Messi and Ronaldo have scored more than 100 goals each in European competitions, Hazard has just eight Champions League goals to his name and his manager has admitted he needs to shine more consistently to have any hope of earning a place at the game's top table.
“When you see the best players in the world, you see a hunger in every moment,” declared Conte, as he was asked to assess Hazard’s performances over the last few months. Score one goal they want to score the second, score second want to score the third. They are very hungry and for that reason they are special. They want to win.
“Look at Ronaldo and Messi. They have hunger, they want to win, win, win and continue. The past is not important for these players. For these reasons I have a great, great respect for these players because to stay at that level you have to work very hard, it is tough.
“We all have a fire inside us, but it is how much fire you have sometimes, how much desire you have to win every game to score goals. Every one of us, we have this sacred fire and we have to find the right solution to improve it.
“At this level you must have this type of situation. Then the flame can be big or little. When you have an inferno it means you are like Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar.
“Eden has right characteristic to try to fight with these giants. He has the characteristic, so then he has to try to do this and to improve his position in this Ballon d’Or table in the next year. He has the potential to do this, but it is not simple to overcome this chance.”
There is no shame in being recognised as one of the top ten performers in the English game, yet Hazard has set his bar much higher than that as he revealed his ambitions to become a true great of the world game, as he revealed in an interview with Sky Sports last year.
“It’s good to be compared with the greatest ever, Messi or Ronaldo,” declared Hazard. “Now I need to score more goals every year, maybe 40 or 50 every season to get their level. That has to be my aim.”
Well Eden, in two of the last three years, you have gone missing when your manager has needed you most and we have long since passed the moment to ask whether you is the real deal or the ultimate luxury player.
Maybe what we are seeing from Hazard is all we can expect from the 19th best player in the world.