Can the success of De Bruyne at Manchester City. The plaudits. The adulation coming his way. Can all this actually motivate Eden Hazard? To kick Chelsea‘s No10 into action and make him realise that the game can quickly pass him by?
There was no contest on Saturday. At Stamford Bridge. Under the floodlights and in front of the world. It was De Bruyne’s night. He’s played better this season, but over the full 90 he was the game’s outstanding player.
His winner offered everything Hazard couldn’t. De Bruyne had spent much of the game in a deeper position, collecting the ball from his back four, distributing where fit. And the manner of his goal only affirmed Pep Guardiola‘s pre-match plan.
There he was, midway through the second-half, collecting the ball on the halfway line. A burst of acceleration drove him forward. A quick one-two with Gabriel Jesus was played. And without breaking stride he powered his strike past Thibaut Courtois in the Chelsea goal.
It was a classic midfielder’s goal. A classic from a bygone era of English football. The type Bryan Robson or Steven Gerrard would be proud of. Stamina. Power. Skill. As much physical as technical. Bursting from deep, Chelsea‘s players, in that moment, couldn’t get close to De Bruyne. A goal made in preseason. In the gym. Without the ball. A goal you’ll never see Hazard scoring…
Going into Saturday Conte, the Chelsea manager, went there. The last manager to do so was out on his ear within weeks. But Conte did it.
“If God gives you this talent, you must exploit this talent,” declared the Italian, when speaking about Hazard. “My task is sometimes to try and push him to be decisive in every moment, in every game, and also that the team-mates wait for this.”
Of course, we’ve seen this movie before. Less than two years ago. Only Mourinho – as he will do – went further, dropping Hazard after becoming exasperated by his attitude.
“How did he train (after being dropped)?” Mourinho shrugged after beating Aston Villasans his No10, “He trained like Eden…”
Conte won’t get a response from Hazard. Just as Mourinho failed to do so. Hazard, like us, has heard it all before. The complaints from Mourinho’s staff echoed by those Conte has now brought in: “He only does enough to get by”.
But there could be a shard of light. Resentment. Jealousy. Sheer panic. Whatever the emotion, the idea of De Bruyne now bypassing him in status has to burn Eden up.
Both 26. Both attacking midfielders. Both lauded by Belgium’s football authorities since they were U10s. But it was always Hazard who was celebrated. The future Belgium captain. The future Ballon d’Or winner. The one Real Madrid saw as their next No10. De Bruyne was always the afterthought. Good player. Great talent. But, c’mon, he’s no Eden Hazard…
But today? No-one’s talking about Hazard like Guardiola is talking about De Bruyne. No-one’s comparing Hazard to Cristiano Ronaldo as Guardiola, of all people, is De Bruyne with Leo Messi.
Indeed, the striking aspect to come from Saturday’s game was the lack of review of Hazard’s performance. There was no huge write-ups comparing him and De Bruyne. No pundits wondering out loud if Hazard’s crown had slipped. It was almost routine. Expected. Hazard, now in the shadow of his Belgium teammate, has become the afterthought.
A childhood rivalry, where he always had the upperhand, now flipped? Will his ego allow it? Could De Bruyne finally garner a reaction from Hazard where Mourinho – and now Conte – have failed?
“Eden is Eden,” says Piet de Visser, Chelsea‘s brilliant part-time talent spotter. “He is a player with superb individual actions, but someone who will never be a machine. He also wants to relax. Do not make him the captain. Just tell him to have fun on the field.”
But for Hazard. For his ego. Can he find “fun” seeing De Bruyne enjoy all this current success when he knows, deep down, “that should be me”…?
For Chelsea. For Hazard’s career. You hope the answer is: no.