It has not always been this easy for Eden Hazard. His effortless feint then finish against Bournemouth on Saturday was just the latest entry in a showreel teeming with long-lasting contributions to Chelsea’s relentless charge towards the Premier League title. With seven games to go, Hazard might yet decide the outcome of this two-horse race single-handed.
It is a stark contrast to this time last year. Hazard was haphazard, bogged down by injuries, lost in a cycle in an underperforming team and the hub of debate for all the wrong reasons.
It was after Chelsea’s visit to Bournemouth in April last season – when Hazard scored twice to end his 355-day wait for a league goal – that Guus Hiddink, then the interim manager, was quizzed about the forward’s struggle for form. Hiddink was frank in his assessment but predicted Hazard, a player hurt by criticism, to come back stronger and determined to showcase his class on a permanent basis. How he is now thriving on centre stage in Antonio Conte’s champions-elect.
Hazard himself recognises he is a different proposition altogether this season. He describes his form as “fantastic, like the whole team” and it is his team‑mates who have benefited most from his transformation. But he also realises that fleeting moments of brilliance against Bournemouth are not enough for players with his talent. “I remember in France I always scored against the same teams,” Hazard said, “But if you want to be a top player, you have to score against every team.”
Here Hazard ghosted into space, eluding the Bournemouth full-back Adam Smith time and again. There was an overwhelming silent sense of anticipation every time Hazard danced his way around the penalty area and towards goal. He was on the receiving end of a bruising challenge by Harry Arter but got back up and got on with it. Hazard is on autopilot, enjoying every touch and proving incredibly hard to stop.
His goal – his fourth in three games against Bournemouth – was typical of a player exuding confidence, taking Artur Boruc out of the game with his right foot before stroking home with his left. Hazard did not hide for cover but rather relished the added responsibility on an evening when Chelsea looked to him to make the difference.
“He is great player, a great talent and he must understand that he is a great player and to never forget this,” Conte said of the 26-year-old. “I am happy for Eden. He scored but is also doing a good job, good work during the game.”
As well as re-establishing a certain self‑assurance, it is Hazard’s all-round game – criticised by José Mourinho – that has been fine-tuned in double-quick time under Conte. Mourinho had suggested Hazard lacked hunger and the willingness to sacrifice himself for his team-mates.
“I think that every coach’s real function is not only to win but a good coach tries to improve the players and also tries to find the right way to work with them, to improve tactical aspects and physical aspects, to show them the situation that they can improve,” Conte said. “I think a good coach or a good manager must do this, not only to win or to buy the best players in the world.”
After victory on the south coast, Hazard said Chelsea had “passed a test” but on current form, with the Belgian at such ease and gliding through games, it feels as though they are almost cheating. It is not all perfect though. Chelsea have not kept a clean sheet in the league since January and the goals appear to have dried up for Diego Costa but they are only minor glitches for Conte, blase about such defensive shortcomings with Hazard in scintillating form. He is not the only one either, with Nemanja Matic, Marcos Alonso and Pedro also excelling here. N’Golo Kanté, too.
But it is Hazard who has weighed in with priceless goals across the past few weeks and his purple patch could not have come at a better time ahead of a reunion with Mourinho at Old Trafford on Sunday.
“I think we are showing all the season great character, great desire, great will to fight for the title,” Conte said. “bBut I repeat, [when] we started the season, nobody thought that Chelsea could fight for the title but instead we found the right motivation together.
“Now we stayed there, top of the league and have tried to change the opinion of the others.”