Antonio Conte’s biggest Chelsea challenge: revitalizing Eden Hazard

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There’s a lot of unfamiliarity surrounding Chelsea on the eve of the 2016/17 Premier League season. First, Chelsea face the prospect of no European competition for the first time since 1998/99 after the club’s worst finish in 20 seasons. The future of where they’ll play remains in limbo, and a new, pizza-banning manager in Antonio Conte has taken over. But perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of the Blues falls on their star winger, Eden Hazard.

To put it plainly, last season for Chelsea was an unmitigated disaster. That’s a fair statement when the Blues mustered a 10th place finish in the league as defending champions. Prior to that blight, the lowest finish a Premier League title-holder attained was seventh, held by Blackburn in 1996 and Manchester United in 2015.

Chelsea’s lost season coincided with a dismal year for Hazard. Two seasons ago, Eden Hazard appeared positioned to eventually throw his name into the ring for the at the FIFA Ballon d’Or. Just one season later and that kind of talk is ludicrous, at best. In Chelsea’s title-winning 2014/15 campaign, Hazard collected 14 goals and 10 assists en route to the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and Football Writers' Association's Footballer of the Year awards. Last season, he didn’t score his first league goal until April 23.

As with most major bed-wettings, there’s no clear-cut answer as to where it all went wrong for Chelsea and Hazard. The manager is an easy culprit, but it’s not normally a cut-and-dry situation. A big, steel-toed boot landed on manager Jose Mourinho’s backside midway through the season, but the team only marginally improved under caretaker boss Guus Hiddink. And by that time, Chelsea were merely fighting to possibly attain a Europa League spot.

Injuries certainly played a part in Hazard’s shortcomings — and his involvement in the Eva Carneiro/Mourinho debacle didn’t help anything — but one thing was abundantly clear: Hazard wasn’t the same player. And not just in terms of results, but even his attitude. His trademark impish smile had instead been replaced by a scowl indicative of understandable frustration.

In a sign of how much the tides had changed, by last year’s winter transfer window Hazard was linked to a move out to Real Madrid. The Spanish giants weren’t shy with their courtship, either, as manager Zinedine Zidane professed his love for the Belgian so unabashedly it was like a scene out of Nicholas Sparks movie. Hazard remained at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea couldn’t have been blamed if Real offered a mint and the Blues cut ties with Hazard.

It’s clear that Conte’s biggest task will be reanimating Hazard and getting the Belgian to capture the form that had him earmarked as one of the brightest young players in the game. To be fair, Hazard is far from a lost cause. At just 25 years old, one forfeited season doesn’t make him a lemon.

How Conte will go about that and utilize Hazard in his offense remains to be seen.

Mourinho rode the Chelsea dynamo’s cut-ins from the left flank to great effect, but the case could be made that overuse contributed to Hazard’s precipitous dip in form. Should Conte opt to build the focus of the Chelsea offense elsewhere, or at least lighten the load on Hazard, how would the winger react?

Furthermore, Conte hasn’t appeared to settle on a preferred formation with Chelsea (and perhaps he never really will) but it’s certain Hazard will be leaned on in some capacity, likely on his preferred left. The likes of Diego Costa, Willian and Cesc Fabregas all return alongside him, but Chelsea’s biggest signings of the offseason, N’Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi, are either a non-offensive threat (Kante) or an unproven Premier League product (Batshuayi).

Chelsea will always be linked with bringing in further attacking talent, ex-Chelsea man Romelu Lukaku among them, but it could all be moot. Unless Conte can get Hazard back into form, the Blues could be in for another long and lackluster season. On the flip side, if Hazard returns to his best there’s no telling where they could wind up. While the rest of the Premier League’s big boys face midweek trips across Europe, Chelsea and Conte will have ample time to focus on the domestic contests.

If a smile is spotted on Hazard’s face in the early going, perhaps that will be the best barometer of Chelsea’s destiny.

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