Mourinho did not know how handle the Belgian when he managed the winger. Even though Hazard led Chelsea to the title and won double player of the year awards in Mourinho’s final full season at Stamford Bridge, the relationship between the two men was frosty.
The 54-year-old has an innate suspicion of flair players and his mistrust of Hazard was palpable. It reached its zenith when the Portuguese questioned the player’s heart.
After dropping Hazard for a match against Aston Villa in October 2015, Mourinho explained his star forward’s absence this way: “When you don’t have the ball, quality means nothing and what means [something]…” At that point he tapped his chest. “You have it or you don’t have it.”
It was particularly hurtful criticism, delivered in front of the television cameras. And it was never going to work with an intelligent, thoughtful player such as Hazard.
Since leaving Chelsea, Mourinho has not enjoyed his encounters with the winger. In their first Premier League meeting in October, Hazard’s movement, pace and trickery confounded the United defence as the Blues routed their rivals 4-0. Last month in the FA Cup quarter-finals the Special One had a special plan for the Belgian — kick him up in the air. The United players appeared to be working to a rota, taking turns to rough up Hazard in the hope that the referee would not notice the persistent targeting of Chelsea’s danger man. That did not succeed and Mourinho was lucky to leave west London with a 1-0 defeat. United could have been embarrassed again.
This is a critical time at Old Trafford. The Chelsea match comes sandwiched between the two-legged Europa League quarter-finals against Anderlecht. United remain in the hunt for the top four but cannot afford any slip-ups in the league. Europe may represent the best chance Mourinho has of qualifying for the Champions League but relying on winning the Europa League is a dangerous game, as Liverpool found out last year.
Hazard would enjoy denting United’s top four hopes almost as much as Mourinho would relish stopping Chelsea’s title charge. Before the FA Cup tie last month there was a buzz around Stamford Bridge. The word was that the 26-year-old was ready to put on a show against his former boss. It was payback time. From the moment he sprinted out of the tunnel for his warm-up, Hazard looked like a man on a mission. If he approaches the match at Old Trafford in the same manner then Mourinho is in trouble.
An outstanding display during Sunday’s league visit to Old Trafford would put Hazard in pole position to become footballer of the year again. At the moment it feels as if Dele Alli is the frontrunner for the award. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder would be a worthy winner but Hazard’s influence on the season may have been lost a little in Chelsea’s all-round excellence.
Antonio Conte’s side have a number of contenders for individual honours but their success has been built on a collegiate effort. Diego Costa, N’Golo Kante and David Luiz have all stood out, but the whiff of magic in the air at Stamford Bridge emanates from Hazard. His threat forces opponents to change their shape and approach.
Even more than Costa, the Belgian can turn a game. He has also worked hard, killing off any idea he is a luxury item. A dominant display at Old Trafford would be a reminder that this is a footballer at his peak. Alli’s time will come but this has been Hazard’s season.
Can the United manager put the brakes on his former player? The only time Mourinho has been able to stop Hazard was when he was manager of Chelsea. Then he could bench the winger. When the pair have been in opposition, Mourinho’s plans have proved merely to be a brutal form of damage limitation.
The Chelsea man is unplayable at his best. Old Trafford is the perfect stage for him to put on a show. He could leave United’s top-four hopes in ruins. If Hazard’s heart is set on proving his ex-boss wrong, then Mourinho has only himself to blame.