At the end of last season, Eden Hazard had a big decision to make. Having excelled at French side Lille, clubs were clamouring for his services, with England his most likely destination.
As the transfer window was oiled in preparation, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City made their best puppy-dog eyes at the Belgium international, with each offering a sizeable contract to boot.
And Hazard did what anyone would do in that situation. He took to Twitter to send a series of cryptic messages that quickly became their own sort of social media cliff-hanger.
With everyone wanting to know what would happen next, Hazard said he would make a decision based on game-time and the position he would play.
Reports suggested Manchester City pulled out of the running having balked at the 21-year-old’s demands. Whatever the reason, it was suddenly a straight fight between United and Chelsea.
And Chelsea won.
Hazard’s performances in the opening games of the season prompted me to hail him a certainty for at least one Player of the Year award. As it was, Gareth Bale took the lot.
But despite a mid-season dip (and an ill-judged altercation with a ball boy that was vilified and just as swiftly forgotten) Hazard has been outstanding for the Blues, a player who almost instantly settled and has continued the fine form that prompted his £32million move last summer.
This afternoon he comes face-to-face with the team he turned down, having already inspired the comeback in his side’s last visit to Old Trafford.
It was in that FA Cup quarter-final, with United coasting 2-0, that Hazard demonstrated exactly why Sir Alex Ferguson was so desperate to sign him.
That he ultimately acquired Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie suggests he isn’t losing any sleep over Hazard’s snub. But moments like the Belgian’s sublime curling effort that began that FA Cup fight-back must surely hurt a little more as a result.
Hazard would be desperate to repeat his Old Trafford heroics today, with Chelsea striving for the three points that will see them edge closer to a Champions League spot.
Win and they will go into Wednesday’s crucial match against Tottenham at least three points clear of the Lillywhites. Lose and they will be separated only by goal difference.
For United today’s match is one to be enjoyed. For Chelsea, it is one to be won. And Hazard will have a big part to play in that.
When he first arrived in England, he explained his reasons for choosing Stamford Bridge over Old Trafford.
“I’ve always wanted to play in England,” he said, “there was a struggle between Chelsea and United, but to me Chelsea have the best project.”
Should he wish that project to keep to its intended time-frame, he would have done well to turn in another inspirational performance this afternoon.
Unfortunately that is no longer possible as the Belgian has suffered a tweak in the FC Basel game in midweek.
Would Hazard of been the difference between the two sides today?
image: © Ben Sutherland