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Chelsea's Hazard is toxic to opponents

Eden Hazard â¿¿ Chelsea
Hazard has already shown he is worth the hype that surrounded him this summer.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

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The Sunday papers went so far as to ask the question: “Could [Eden] Hazard eclipse Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona as the Premier League’s best foreign import?” The season is barely two weeks old in England—but such is the impact of the summer’s most expensive signing on these shores, it’s a debate that doesn’t sound overly premature.

A measure of how well Hazard has done in such a short time is the swiftness at which his name has already been mentioned in the same breath as Gianfranco Zola. Zola was the diminutive genius against whom all Chelsea playmakers have been measured since he left the club nearly a decade ago to keep a promise to play in his native Sardinia with Cagliari.

“Gianfranco was a wonderful talent, an artist I would say – Eden might become an artist as well,” said Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo, a high compliment indeed considering he once lined up alongside Zola.

The two men have something of the artist about them. Like Zola, Hazard paints with his feet what the mind composes. He has an eye for detail but never loses sight of the big picture. A circle—like the one Hazard spun around the Wigan Athletic defender Iván Ramis inside the first two minutes of Chelsea’s opening Premier League game of the season—had style but substance to it as well, freeing him to trace a line through to Branislav Ivanovic to score. He then drew a penalty for Frank Lampard to convert. Hazard connected the same dots in different way against Reading.

Every brushstroke of his, it seems, has a purpose behind it. A back-heel is often considered an extravagance. And yet, as Hazard showed in Saturday’s encounter with Newcastle United, it can be efficient too—such as when you have it in mind to take a cluster of defenders away from goal and want to return the ball to Fernando Torres in the space you have now created on the edge of the penalty area. Torres followed Hazard’s train of thought and struck a shot into the top right-hand corner with the outside of his foot.

It sealed a 2-0 victory, Chelsea’s third in a row, and leaves the Champions League holders top of the table on maximum points ahead of their trip to Monte Carlo this week for the European Super Cup against Europa League winners Atlético Madrid.

One has to wonder of course whether they’d be in the same position, if it weren’t for the influence of Hazard. He has been involved in 75% of their goals in the Premier League, assisting six and scoring one out of eight, and is being credited with turning the career of Torres around.

“He hasn’t surprised us,” Di Matteo insisted after the Newcastle game. “We watched him a lot last season.”

So did half of Europe. Few footballers have ever been in as enviable a position as Hazard was this summer. Ready to take the next step in his career, he had the pick of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. Who would he choose: Manchester City, Tottenham, Manchester United or Chelsea?

Aware of the growing anticipation surrounding his decision, Hazard thought he’d have a little bit of fun by keeping everyone guessing. When asked by Canal + on May 8 whether he preferred the color red or blue, he replied that he liked both but added with a mischievous glint in his eye: “It’s blue that I’ll be wearing next season. Definitely blue.”

Clearly enjoying playing the tease, later that month he tweeted, laid back as you like: “good afternoon guys. i made up my mind. see you later, thanks.”

The press in England, many of whom were still oblivious of the true extent of Hazard’s talent, grew exasperated. A common refrain was: “Who does he think he is?” a view typical of the close-minded Little Englanders for whom anything Hazard had done up until then counted for nothing considering it hadn’t taken place in the Premier League.

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But Hazard isn’t and wasn’t another jumped up little upstart with an inflated sense of his own worth: the line of clubs queuing up prepared to pay the £33m buy-out clause in his contract was testament to their belief that the hype was justified. Far from representing a gamble, Hazard, at 21, was already a guarantee, so much so that Zinedine Zidane said that he’d sign him “with my eyes closed.”

Born in the Walloon region of Belgium, Hazard grew up in the small town of Braine-le-Comte. It was in the garden and on a pitch there that he first kicked a ball. The Hazards were a sporting family with a football pedigree. Both his parents had played the game professionally and stayed in sport after their respective retirements. His mother Carine was a striker in the women's first division and stopped playing once Eden was born. His father Thierry was a libero and holding midfielder in the men's second division.

"We didn't direct his education in a football sense," Thierry recalled to France Football. "He only started to play football at around four and a half or five-years-old in a club coached by his godfather. There's a pitch right next to our house. He took to it very quickly and from then onwards it was football, football, football. He broke everything inside and outside the house, trying to reproduce the moves he saw on TV like stepovers or Zidane's roulettes."

It wasn't long before Hazard came to the attention of scouts from Lille across the border in France. "It was immediately obvious he was a special talent," Lille's coach at the time Claude Puel told the BBC. "I still remember his first game against FC Bruges. As soon as I sent him on, he left four or five players in his wake and scored an amazing goal."

By 17, Hazard made the place on the left-hand side of Lille's attack his own and earned a call up to represent Belgium while still in his mid-to-late teens—just like another La Louvière native: the so-called 'Little Pele' and greatest player his country had so far ever produced, Enzo Scifo.

But just how much potential Hazard had, if not clear already, came when, barely 18, he almost single-handedly knocked out Lyon, the holders and league champions in each of the last seven seasons, from the Coupe de France in 2009. Hazard scored once and laid on two assists in a 3-2 victory. The whole of France stood up and applauded. It was a performance that earned the first of back-to-back Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year awards.

"At times, he looks like Messi," the charismatic former Marseille coach, Rolland Courbis told RMC radio. "I say 'at times'. He'll get more consistent with the experience he acquires in the coming years."

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Let's not exaggerate, the Messi comparison wasn't like-for-like, but rather a prediction in relative terms of how Hazard might evolve. As with the Barcelona player and his rival Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, he has, with time—as Courbis forecasted—evolved from a winger of extraordinary trickery and fleet of foot to a finisher as well as a creator, capable of posting numbers for both assists and goals in the double-figures.

What was so impressive about Hazard in his final season at Lille was how, following the departure of the team's chief midfield string-puller and penalty taker, Yohan Cabaye to Newcastle, and the sales of prolific strikers Gervinho and Moussa Sow to Arsenal and Fenerbahce respectively, he took on the responsibility to be both the team's playmaker and goal scorer.

Come the end of the campaign, he'd found the net 20 times and had set-up his teammates on 15 occasions. Only one other player in Europe had also done a personal double-double, recording 15 goals or more and 15 assists that season. Any guesses as to who? (Yep, that’s right, it was Messi.)

Joe Cole, who spent last season playing alongside Hazard while on loan at Lille from Liverpool, said: “He’s got everything. He’ll maybe become one of the best players in the world.”

Few would argue with that opinion after Hazard’s breathtaking displays for Chelsea in the past week.

“I am confident. I have integrated very quickly,” Hazard told L’Équipe.

Indeed, he has taken no time to settle in. So much so that Stamford Bridge is gradually becoming known to fans under a different name: The garden of Eden.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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