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