As Eden Hazard drove out into the Fulham Road gridlock on the last day of the season two summers ago there was a suggestion in the air he might be leaving Stamford Bridge for the last time.
Although not, as it turned out, without a fight. As Hazard crawled past Fulham Broadway a friendly group of Chelsea fans surrounded his car and began pleading with him to stay. One particularly excited man jammed his head and shoulders through the window so that, as Hazard accelerated away, he was carried down the road, feet off the ground, still beseeching him to spurn the advances of Paris Saint-Germain. Ten minutes of horn-parping passed before the crowd could be persuaded to move, last of all the jammed-in man, who was peeled away by a crowd of volunteers.
Hazard stuck around. The following season was the best of his career, a title-winning turn that seemed at the time a decisive moment of uplift into the ranks of A-list creative midfield sprites. Two years on, though, it is the fan jammed through the window that sticks in the mind, that inconsolable, stricken devotion to wringing some higher level of intensity out of a player who even now seems to be only intermittently exploring the fringes of his exhilarating talent. Trying hard to get Eden Hazard to do something; to be the same but slightly more so. This is a common theme.
With Belgium it has been Marc Wilmots’ job for the past four years to cram his head in through the window and plead, even quite angrily at times, for the Hazard gears to click and the Hazard legs to start whirring in that way that seems to make every other player on the pitch simply stop and watch for a moment.
For now it seems to be working. On Friday Hazard will return to Lille for Belgium’s quarter-final with Wales, an occasion that already has the air of a landmark moment in his career. Most obviously Lille was Hazard’s home during his formative years. It was here as a teenager that the French football federation took its turn at trying to persuade him to switch nationalities, a path that might have led him instead to the Stade de France and Iceland on Sunday.
Hazard never seriously considered it. Eight years and 69 caps on from his debut he is Belgium’s captain as they aim to reach a first semi-final since Enzo Scifo’s team were ambushed by Diego Maradona at the World Cup in Mexico 30 years ago.
For Hazard it is a chance also to confirm his status alongside Gareth Bale in the race for the title of most compelling attacker at these Euros. Hazard was sublime against Hungary last Sunday, all waspish runs and nifty passing angles. He has been a gathering influence all tournament, with three assists, one goal and a clear sense of a player finding himself again after a horrible domestic season.
Waiting for Hazard to happen: it is another theme. “If he wants to be part of the category of players who make the difference, he has to raise his level,” Wilmots declared two years ago. “You have to let this little man grow up,” he was still saying as the tournament began. “If he’s feeling good, he’s the best in the world,” Thibaut Courtois said after the Hungary game.
There is a theory Belgium suffer because so many of their players are used to working at club level with very detailed, high-intensity, tactical micro-managers. Whereas Wilmots simply isn’t that guy. For Hazard the current pattern of play has at least clarified his role.
Playing to the left of a 4-2-3-1 his role is simply to act as a cutting edge. With the resolute Jan Vertonghen behind him Hazard can play facing forwards. Look at a map of his movements and he seems to have spent pretty much his entire 351 minutes on the pitch in France lurking in that inside-left channel, gliding inside as required, but tracking back less, concentrating only on the game in front of him.
Doing less has brought more. Hazard has dribbled more for Belgium, averaging 5.6 per 90 minutes, as opposed to 3.7 in the Premier League. In four games he has had half as many shots outside the box as he managed in the entire league season just past. He continues to be fouled with bruising regularity, usually a sign of his best work.
Playing against Hungary may have helped, not least a Hungary who had just lost their best defensive midfielder. But Hazard was also Belgium’s best player in the defeat by Italy, always seeking the ball, always wanting to drive his team forward. The partnership with Kevin De Bruyne – the Belgo Lampard-Gerrard conundrum du jour – has also worked a little better. Hazard has played close to his more direct creative partner, joining those lightning De Bruyne breaks, as he did for the wonderful counterattack goal against Hungary.
The temptation, as ever, is to hope for more. After a season spent cowering in plain sight, perhaps it could even be time for another significant forward step in the career of a player for whom the consensus has always promised some form of greatness. Players Eden Hazard could be like: this has also been a theme.
“He’s like Messi,” Joe Cole said during his time at Lille. “I don’t want to put pressure on the kid, but he’s like him – short, squat, powerful legs, great touch, he’s got everything.” So, no pressure then Joe. Wilmots has compared his ability on the ball to Zinedine Zidane. Axel Witsel’s verdict post-Hungary was sweeping: “He has all the qualities needed to become the world’s best player.”
And yet Hazard is still very much in the ante-chamber. Zidane and Messi may have to wait a little for a man who trails behind Jesús Navas on the list of Premier League assists over the past three seasons. Even in his player of the year season Hazard benefited from a generally low bar. His combined total of goals and scoring passes would have left him seventh on the Premier League list last season, just ahead of Olivier Giroud.
And yet Hazard was decisive in Chelsea’s title triumph. Last season’s astonishing falling away, the worst showing from a reigning English player of the year by an absolute mile, was in part a reaction to his efforts, a man playing through a hip injury for too long, training constantly in pain. A quarter-final in Lille would be a perfect moment to emphasise his returning vigour. Beyond these Euros the world’s most promising 25-year-old veteran has another new club manager to impress in Antonio Conte, whom he could yet meet in the final if Belgium can get past Wales.
Before then he presents a daunting prospect for Chris Coleman’s defence, a constant menace in a team who can tee him up in those in-out half-turn positions where his extraordinary lateral spring can shed even the most determined posse of close markers. How to get a hold of Eden Hazard: it is, from both sides, a familiarly vexing question.
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