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Has Chelsea’s Eden Hazard proven himself as world-class?

Jake Jackman

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Hazard

Eden Hazard has slowly worked his way back to fitness and he will be looking to press ahead over the coming weeks to prove he is now one of the best players in Europe. The Chelsea attacker has been included in the long list for the 2017 Ballon d’Or, highlighting his growing reputation across the continent, but there is further for him to go to be seen as one of the very best. As things stand, it seems unlikely that he will be on the shortlist for the award and that will be his aim in the immediate future. Earlier this year, the Belgian commented on the prestigious award:

“I hope to win the Ballon d’Or one day.

“It’s in my mind. If I don’t, it won’t be a problem. I try to make a good career – the best I can – but I think some other players deserve to win it also.”

It is clear that he has an ambition to win the award and that is positive, especially considering the potential he does possess. Hazard is a gifted player, as shown by his excellent 2016/17 campaign that helped Chelsea win the Premier League. The Belgian contributed 16 goals and five assists, which is an incredible return. It was his best goal-scoring season since his arrival in England and based on that, his nomination for the Ballon d’Or is merited.

The next step is for Hazard to show consistency in his performance and replicate that success for another season. Since his incredible 2011/12 season at Lille, he has enjoyed a lot of individual success, but the 2015/16 campaign is a black mark on his resumé. The 26-year-old contributed only four goals and three assists in a season that saw Chelsea finish in 10th position. He admitted that he wasn’t good enough once the season had finished:

“I haven’t had a good year. You have to be clear — I’ve had a rubbish year apart from the final month [for Chelsea]. I had little problems, injuries and a loss of form.”

Hazard took responsibility for his own failings that season and that is commendable, but there is no longer room for error if he wants to be considered as one of the best in Europe. His man-of-the-match performance in Chelsea’s Champions League win away to Atletico Madrid provided him with momentum for this campaign. It will now be interesting to see if he can back that up by performing to that level on a consistent basis.

Was he always destined for the top?

Since breaking through at Lille, Hazard has always been tipped for the very top and there will be some in the game that believe he still has a long way to go if he is to fulfil his potential. In France, he played a key role as Lille lifted Ligue 1 for the first time in 57 years. It was an incredible achievement at the time and the Belgian attacker was the undoubted star.

 

Hazard was talked up as a future world star at an early age with Zinedine Zidane suggesting he was capable of playing for Real Madrid following the 2010-11 season.

“There are players who could add something to Real Madrid and Eden Hazard is one of them. I appreciate the player and what he is doing for his club is extraordinary.”

It was clear during his time with Lille that he was destined for bigger things and comments such as the one above underline how highly he was thought of within the game. Zidane is one of the leading personalities in football and for him to speak about a 20-year-old breaking through in Ligue 1 as a future Real Madrid player is high praise. That said, there was a lot of pressure on Hazard due to the hype around him and the way in which he moved to Chelsea a year later showed that he was starting to act like a superstar.

Despite winning the league with Lille, Hazard decided to stay for another season, despite other members of the title-winning squad leaving for pastures new. Yohan Cabaye joined Newcastle United and there was a chance for the Belgian to follow him to the Premier League, but his choice to stay in France was definitely the right one.

He followed up the title-winning season with an even better individual season as he contributed 20 goals and 16 assists. These were numbers that made people sit up and look at Hazard as a potentially elite player, but his record in the Champions League suggested there was still a long way for him to go at that point. He managed only one assist across the six group games.

It was the right time to leave Ligue 1 as he needed to test himself in a bigger league, but his decision to announce his move to Chelsea on Twitter rather than waiting for an official press release was odd. Many saw it as the player calling the shots and acting like a superstar before he had earned it on the pitch.

This will be his sixth season in the Premier League. Although he has established himself as one of the best players in the division, he hasn’t yet done enough to earn the same reputation in Europe. His Champions League record has been underwhelming for a player with his ability, while his drop off after winning the PFA Player of the Year award in 2015 is a concern.

Is this Hazard’s year?

There is a valid argument that Hazard had his best season for Chelsea last year in terms of overall contribution. He may not have contributed to as many goals, but he was central to their attacking play and delivered a level of consistency that was missing during the previous campaign. The injury during the summer halted his development, but he is now back to full fitness after the international break.

This will be a good test of Hazard and whether he has matured as a character. He needs to prove that the drop-off during the 2015/16 season wasn’t due to him resting on his laurels after a successful campaign. The very best players in the world can deliver elite season after elite season. Hazard has yet to do that and that is why there are still question marks about him at the very top level.

He is clearly an excellent player as his Ballon d’Or nomination shows. However, there has always been a feeling in England that he could be even better and perhaps even compete to win the award rather than settle for a nomination. At the age of 26, it is now the time to put up or shut up. The next couple of years will show one way or another whether he is an elite player or a tier beneath that.

Jake is a student based in the South East. He is a Newcastle fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.

Chelsea

Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea

Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 3-0 West Bromwich Albion: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Stamford Bridge as an Eden Hazard inspired Chelsea dismantled a struggling West Bromwich Albion side.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Chelsea eased the pressure on Antonio Conte after a brace from Eden Hazard saw off basement boys West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge.

It had been a troubling week for the Blues, following back-to-back heavy defeats against Bournemouth and Watford that had cast serious doubts over Conte’s position as manager.

But Hazard netted twice, either side of a goal from Victor Moses to complete a routine victory over the Baggies, who lost loan star Daniel Sturridge to injury after just three minutes.

Chelsea leapfrog Tottenham Hotspur into fourth spot as the battle for the top four heats up, while West Brom remain seven points adrift of safety.

Here are three talking points…

Talismanic Hazard comes to the rescue again

Just days after he was voted as Belgium’s player of the year by his peers, Hazard underlined his ability as a footballer of rare class with another brace to take his tally to 11 for the season.

Chelsea’s number 10 has an excellent scoring record against West Brom, one which he improved upon with a display that was too good for the Baggies to handle.

Hazard is a talismanic performer and when he hits his straps, the rest of the team feed off him.

Hazard combined with new boy Olivier Giroud to slam home his first of the evening, which eased the tension at Stamford Bridge.

The 27-year-old added his second and rounded off the scoring late in the second half, slamming the ball past visiting keeper Ben Foster.

Back in the top four as a result of this victory, Hazard will be the key to Chelsea’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

With him in their ranks, anything is possible.

Conte relieved as the pressure lifts

One man who will be extremely grateful for Hazard’s dazzling display is Conte.

The Italian seemed to be on the brink after last week’s 4-1 loss to Watford, which came hot on the heels of a similarly catastrophic result at home to Bournemouth.

Conte’s prickly demeanour and comments in press conferences had led some to speculate that he was goading the Chelsea board into sacking him, less than a year after he steered the club to the Premier League title.

Either way, it’s clear he retains the full support of the Stamford Bridge faithful, which was vocal in its support for Conte throughout the game, chanting his name with regularity.

Conte himself was typically demonstrative on the touchline, bellowing instructions and celebrating each of the goals as his players repaid him with an improved performance.

Whether he will be in the dugout next season remains to be seen, but for now at least his job is more secure than it was a week ago.

Sturridge’s World Cup audition falls flat

In front of watching England manager Gareth Southgate, Sturridge would have been hopeful of making a positive impression following his shock move to West Brom in the January window.

The Liverpool striker made the switch in order to enhance his prospects of making the World Cup squad, which will be named in little over three months’ time.

Few doubt Sturridge’s quality, but his fragile body continually struggles to hold up under the intensity of Premier League football.

His withdrawal due to a hamstring strain less than three minutes on the clock was a monumental blow, both to him personally and West Brom’s ambitions of springing a surprise against Chelsea.

Although he is expected to be sidelined for only a couple of weeks, this latest setback again raises questions over his durability.

Sturridge’s opportunities to prove he deserves to be on the plane to Russia are fast running out.

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Arsenal

Which four of the ‘big-six’ clubs will qualify for next season’s Champions League?

Martyn Cooke

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There are just 12 games remaining of the current Premier League season and, with Manchester City seemingly destined to secure the title, attention will now turn towards the battle to secure a place in the top-four.

There are only three places available to share between Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool and two of those clubs will be have to be content with competing in the Europa League next season.

Here, The Boot Room predicts who will finish in the top four at the end of the season…

Arsenal

There was once a time when the possibility of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal failing to qualify for the Champions League was unthinkable, yet the Gunners are facing the realistic possibility of missing out on playing in Europe’s elite club competition for the second consecutive season.

This campaign they have been held back by their inconsistent and unpredictable form away from home and are playing catch-up with their rivals with a five-point gap emerging between themselves and fourth place.

There is a new sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after Wenger added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his squad yet a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday would all but end their hopes – qualifying through winning the Europa League could be a more realistic option.

Prediction: 6th

Manchester United

There is currently a slight sense of disappointment around Old Trafford this season that, despite obvious progress since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, the club have had to be content with seeing cross-city rivals Manchester City stroll their way towards the Premier League title.

It is difficult to imagine Manchester United missing out on a Champions League place as they already have a considerable buffer of seven points and undoubtedly have a squad that is full of quality and experience.

The arrival of Alexis Sanchez will provide additional impetus in the closing stages of the campaign and the only real danger is that their attention might be redirected towards challenging for the Champions League or FA Cup with the title already all but lost.

However, Mouirnho has his team ticking over nicely and it is likely that they will maintain their current league position.

Prediction: 2nd  

Chelsea

It has been a frustrating and increasing turbulent season at Stamford Bridge following the failure of Chelsea to build on last season’s title triumph.

Back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford have left the Blues clinging on to their place in the top four and there is now a realistic possibility that they may miss out on Champions League qualification.

Antonio Conte’s frustration with the club’s transfer policy has been clear to see since the summer and the off-pitch squabbling can only be a destabilising influence for the players.

Chelsea are certainly a team that are out of form and appear to be short of confidence and direction and it will be a true test of Conte’s managerial prowess to see if he can facilitate some sort of revival in the closing months of the season.

However, momentum is currently against them and they may well be one of the two clubs to miss out.

Prediction: 6th

Liverpool

You get the sense that it is always two steps forward followed by one step back at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp and you never know quite what to expect.

Liverpool continue to be consistently inconsistent as demonstrated by their recent, contrasting performances against Manchester City and Swansea City.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk in the January transfer window is a boost, although recent games have suggested that he alone will not solve the club’s defensive frailties, whilst the sale of Phillip Coutinho is offset by the impressive array of attacking players that Klopp has collected.

If Liverpool can put together a good run of results then they will be able to capitalise on Antonio Conte’s woes as Chelsea and finish in the top four.

Prediction: 4th

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur supporters will now have a taste for Champions League football after the success of their team in this year’s competition and they are hitting form at just the right moment in the Premier League.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten since mid-December and have plenty of momentum with the inspirational figure of Harry Kane continuing to his remarkable, prolific run of form in front of goal.

Much will depend on whether the England striker can stay fit until the end of the season whilst they also need Dele Alli to rediscover the sparkle that he has lost in recent months.

Tottenham face a season-defining fixture on Saturday when they face Arsenal in the North London derby but they should have enough quality to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Prediction: 3rd

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