In what has been an event-filled 14 years under Roman Abramovich so far, Chelsea have withstood a fair bit of controversy and difficulty amid so many trophies, to the point that one employee once quipped with a laugh “there’s always something at this club”. There is something they haven’t yet had to withstand, however, that almost every other big Premier League club has so far buckled under. They now look increasingly likely to face it over the next few months.
That is proper concerted interest in one of their stars from one of the big Spanish two, specifically Real Madrid and Eden Hazard. Sure, the Liga duo have taken a look at Chelsea’s players in the last few years, but they haven’t been subjected to the type of “project” that really applies the pressure; that Arsenal faced with Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas; that Manchester United faced with Cristiano Ronaldo; that Tottenham Hotspur faced with Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.
It seems like that’s changing. Over the weekend, we had what always looks like the first substantial step in these projects: the media campaign. Monday’s Marca led with a huge Hazard front page that went beyond declaring Real’s interest in the player. It instead felt like it had the kind of details that have been purposely leaked by the Bernabeu hierarchy to begin destabilising the situation and get their man. The front declared: ‘Chelsea open to negotiation’, while also detailing that the club have a pact with the player that they will listen to offers.
As anyone familiar with how the Stamford Bridge hierarchy operates knows, though, that’s not their usual opening stance in any negotiations. Those close to the club, by contrast, are adamant that they will not sell their premium name.
That’s also what makes this situation all the more engaging, and hopefully a touch more interesting than the usual saga. There is an element of unstoppable force against immovable object about it.
Chelsea have not had their most productive summer transfer windows over the last two years as they have operated a touch more frugally, but they are still rightfully respected as among the slickest and canniest in the business, most notably for the speed and hard edge with which they complete deals. They also have the financial clout to back it all up.
Real Madrid are going to face a considerable foe, but Florentino Perez is also the type of man who has considerable success behind him in this area. He usually gets his way, and there is a long list of players - from Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane through to David Beckham and Ronaldo - that prove it. Even his last high-profile ‘failure’ was essentially a success, in that Real had convinced Manchester United to sell them David De Gea in the summer of 2015. The deal did not fall down because of the Old Trafford hierarchy’s reluctance to sell.
There was one big difference between all those deals and this one, though, that plays into Chelsea’s hands and strengthens their position. All of those players actively wanted to go to the Bernabeu. Sure, they weren’t willing to agitate for a move, but they did make their position clear.
Those close to Hazard, meanwhile, currently feel that he will stay.
He is aware of Zidane’s long-standing admiration for him, and that is flattering, but that is pretty much it for the moment. He has not, for example, asked Thibaut Courtois - who Real are also interested in - advice on accommodation in Madrid.
If Perez and the rest of the Real hierarchy really are that interested in Hazard, working on that will no doubt be the next step.
It will be a test to see how strong Chelsea can stand - and one of the few the club have not faced before. They are confident of passing it, and standing right up to Real Madrid in a way no other English club has done.