Eden Hazard’s brilliance lifts Chelsea as view from the Bridge improves | Barney Ronay

Barney Ronay at Stamford Bridge
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Eden Hazard was in sparkling form again and at the centre of all Chelsea’s good work in the vital 2-1 home victory against Manchester City.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA</span>
Eden Hazard was in sparkling form again and at the centre of all Chelsea’s good work in the vital 2-1 home victory against Manchester City. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

T here was an unusual sound just before half-time in this bustling, full-body collision of a Premier League match. For most of the opening 45 minutes the usual snorts and surges of rage had barrelled around the ground, most of it directed at the ongoing Sergio Agüero-David Luiz vendetta.

As the interval approached Eden Hazard picked up the ball near the centre circle one last time. Chopping the turf with his heel to stop his momentum, Hazard swayed one way, darted back the other and left John Stones looking strangely lost, wandering vaguely in the general direction of Earls Court, as Hazard spurted off down the line behind him.

Stones had time to grimace, the look of a man tricked by an electric hand-buzzer or spritzed by a lapel flower, before loping back in pursuit.

And for a moment the air seemed to leave that side of the ground, ushering in that unusual sound, a yelp of stifled laughter.

The Premier League may be many things, most of them turned up to 11 and picked out in capital letters. It isn’t often funny, though, not least on occasions such as these, an evening of compressed athletic spectacle when Chelsea’s 2-1 victory nudged the Premier League title a little closer.

Hazard was brilliant in that opening half, as he has been often this season. He had high-grade support from Pedro and Cesc Fàbregas. Beyond that this Chelsea team is basically built to service his strengths, relieving him of defensive duties and allowing Hazard to bend the game to his will from an endless series of pivots and drives around the centre circle.

This always seemed like a match to be seized. Before kick-off there was a crackle of event glamour around Stamford Bridge on a balmy evening, with powder-blue skies at kick-off over the lip of those doomed shopping-centre stands.

Nobody hands out league title medals in April. But they might just buff them up a little and dust off the ceremonial velveteen boxes.

Deprived of Victor Moses, Antonio Conte sent out a team that looked designed not to lose, a Mourinho-ish thing on paper, with five defenders and N’Ggolo Kanté in front, the footballing equivalent of belt, braces, surgical truss and all-in-one asbestos girdle.

Guardiola, who dines and breakfasts on midfielders, picked six in this team. He made plans for Hazard too, fielding a double midfield bolt of Fabian Delph and Fernandinho, with special detail to flood those in-between areas where Hazard drifts with his back to goal and looks to spin and run.

Chelsea started quickly. For a while Kanté seemed to be playing as a No10, suffocating the City backline by coming in nervelessly close, like a short cover fielder in cricket walking in and shutting down the angles. It was from a turnover that Hazard’s opening goal came.

Diego Costa won the ball in a squirming heap of limbs. Pedro and César Azpilicueta combined. Nobody tracked Hazard and the ball was swept into the corner via deflections from Vincent Kompany’s cringing pate and Willy Caballero’s fingers.

By then Hazard was playing beautifully, a defining player in a defining game, given the freedom to buzz around between the lines, able to turn and spring quicker than any player close to him. City had plenty of the ball, playing as ever with a winning optimism, and having a stroke of luck as Thibaut Courtois’s horrible pass helped David Silva’s shot set up Agüero for the equaliser.

Hazard’s second goal arrived on 35 minutes via the penalty spot after Pedro had been tripped. Even here he managed to inject a little art. Caballero got down well to save a poor spot kick. From the rebound Hazard opened his body, feinted and put the ball in the corner.

By the end Hazard had completed just 23 passes, been dispossessed six times and all but faded from view in the final half hour. But he was still the most compelling, decisive single figure on the pitch.

Hazard may not have the more artful range of David Silva, a player who can basically do anything with the ball, whose range with a pass seems limitless at times. He may play a relatively simple game based on close control, incisive short passing and that astonishing lateral spring, swaying through the smallest gaps on the most direct route to goal. But he does it with such relentless verve that on days like these he can seem overwhelming, a goalscoring burst just waiting to happen.

Hazard went off to another ovation from a crowd that has seen him wax and wane and come again this season, a star attacker who really does play like a star now; and who may in the process have become too good to stick around come the end of the season, ready at last to fill the in-house superstar template at one of the galactico clubs. For now, and just like their main man, Chelsea will take some stopping from here.

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