“I’m signing for the Champions League winner.” And the rest they say, was history. That Eden Hazard tweet from 11 years ago was the beginning of a footballing chapter of one of the best and most talented players of the 21st century.
Hazard joined 2012 UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea from French side Lille in the summer of 2012 as a buzzing youngster who was highly coveted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe. To date, the Chelsea faithful still bless their stars that the ex-Belgian captain chose them amidst the numerous options his talent attracted. After 2-3 seasons of individual brilliance and collective success with Lille in Ligue 1, the trajectory of Eden Hazard’s career was clear. He was going right to the top.
In October, Eden Hazard called time on his legendary career, though a career that came to an end a little bit prematurely following the incessant injuries that plagued the 32-year-old’s time at Real Madrid, and it is these unfortunate reoccurrences of fitness issues that characterized his Real Madrid career that makes him be most remembered for his exploits at Chelsea where he spent seven years, winning several major trophies both domestic and European.
There is no doubt that Eden Hazard remains one of the most talented players that ever set foot in England. He dazzled and weaved through Premier League defences single-handedly on many occasions, his talent could turn losses into draws, draws into victories, and when he gets really in his element, the Belgian darling of Chelsea fans could turn an imminent defeat into a win.
“He can turn something into a goal where nobody else would have seen a goal”. Former Chelsea assistant coach and legend Gianfranco Zola said after Eden Hazard’s solo goal vs Liverpool in 2018.
It is not too difficult to recall vividly the FA Cup Final vs Manchester United in 2017 where Eden Hazard won and scored a penalty which was the only goal of a game that saw both teams match and cancel each other out tactically. Another Hazard masterclass the world cannot forget in a hurry was the 2019 UEFA Europa League Final, Eden Hazard’s final game for Chelsea where he scored twice and assisted a goal in a comprehensive 4-1 win over Arsenal. There are quite a good number of those clutch Eden Hazard performances, and he introduced himself to the Chelsea faithful in like fashion as he drew a penalty and also assisted Branislav Ivanovic in a 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic in 2012.
Hazard was also a chieftain in Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ of the last six to eight years. Though that generation of Belgian superstars that had also boasted of players like Vincent Kompany, Dries Mertens, a much younger Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku amongst others did fail to achieve any silverware, Eden Hazard left his mark by captaining the side to their best-ever World Cup finish as they took a bronze medal in the 2018 World Cup in Russia with Eden Hazard pulling up an all-timer with one of the most talked about world cup performances in a 2-1 quarter-final win over Brazil, setting the record for the most successful dribbles (10/10) in a World Cup game since 1996.
167 goals and 157 assists in a total of 623 appearances in all competitions for all the club sides he played for, and 33 goals and 36 assists in 126 caps for Belgium, it is evident that Eden Hazard was not in any way a goal machine or a ‘prolific’ goalscorer, but he was the ideal game changer, one of the few footballers who played in this era that could get the fans on their feet.
Apart from being an artist on the ball and a playmaker who makes the lives of defenders a living hell and that of his teammates a lot easier, Hazard was basically in the business of turning up when you needed him the most, so much so that he inadvertently turned up for Leicester City in their 2016 Premier League title-winning campaign.
With so much swagger did substitute, Eden Hazard attacked from inside his own half into the left-hand side of Chelsea’s attack combining with John Obi Mikel and Diego Costa in the process before coming inside on his right to curl past Hugo Lloris, an 83rd minute dagger to Tottenham hearts and a silver lining to what was already a terrible season for Chelsea.
Prime Eden Hazard was in a class of his own. Little wonder Bayern Munich winger, Leroy Sane, who was a Manchester City player in 2018 rated the Belgian, above any other player in the Premier League “Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Hazard are on a level no one else can compete with,” Sane said in 2018.
One cannot help but imagine what could have been had Hazard reached his full potential and enjoyed longevity rather than the injury hell he suffered in the Spanish capital. When Hazard joined Real Madrid in 2019, everyone saw a Madrid legend in the making but it was never to be, and his failure to make an impact at the Spanish capital can easily be traced to injuries. Nothing less than 18 injuries in four seasons at Real Madrid with around 78 games missed meant Hazard could never find his mojo at the club. Just a total of seven goals and 11 assists in his Los Blancos career goes to prove how bad his situation was.
Experts and pundits may claim that Hazard’s woes at Madrid was precipitated by his lack of work ethic, not taking good care of his body, and poor training habits as a youngster at Chelsea with ex-Blues coach, Jose Mourinho once referring to the Belgian as “an amazing player but awful trainer” in an interview with talkSPORT. And Hazard’s former teammate, John Obi Mikel reechoed Mourinho’s statement when he referred to Hazard as: “ the laziest footballer I’ve ever seen in my life…” recently on his podcast. There is also an argument that Hazard at Real Madrid was only suffering repercussions from not being protected enough by referees in the premier league.
Jose Mourinho’s comment from eight years ago is food for thought on this one: “I think the way match after match he is being punished by opponents and he’s not being protected by referees. Maybe one day we won’t have Eden Hazard….” Mourinho said in a post-match conference.
What could have been had Eden Hazard stayed at Chelsea though? Recall that in the 2018/19 season under Maurizio Sarri, Hazard was enjoying his best-ever individual campaign for goals/assists. A total of 21 goals and 17 assists in 52 appearances across all competitions for Chelsea was unprecedented numbers for the ex-Belgium captain but he was approaching the final year of his contract and thought it best to actualize his dream move to Real Madrid. A pretty decent injury record with just 20 games missed in seven seasons at Stamford Bridge, maybe if he had stayed at the club where he had built so much reputation, luck would have smiled on him fitness-wise.
Eden Hazard has often been compared to some of the most talented and greatest wingers of his generation and one of the players whom he has been compared with the most is Mohamed Salah who is still active at Liverpool. Matter-of-factly, it has been a subject of debate across social media and several other platforms.
It is, however, pertinent to point out that both players differ in style of play and profile as Hazard was more of a playmaker while Salah was more of a goalscorer until recently when the Egyptian significantly improved on his playmaking, particularly that final pass that could unlock defences plus exceptional decision making in transitions. 100 big chances created to Hazard’s 68 in almost the same number of Premier League appearances highlights Salah’s superiority in the final phase of play while Hazard’s 47.49 passes per match to Salah’s 29.25 clearly shows how the former excelled at dropping deeper to get involved and combine with teammates in general play.
Though Mohamed Salah’s peak in the Premier League has been longer, it is worth noting that Eden Hazard reached the peak of his powers in his early 20s and was already a star in a Chelsea side a young Mohamed Salah was deemed not good enough to play regularly. Judging based on statistics and numbers, Salah clearly edges Hazard.
217 goals/assists for Salah in 248 Premier League games and counting against Hazard’s 139 goals/assists in 245 games is a very wide gap but if you’ve watched both players play, you will understand why there’s so much difference in their output. Aside from the style of play, some pro-Hazards tend to argue that Salah played in a Liverpool side that was more star-studded than the Chelsea teams Hazard played for and the quality in both teams is quite evident with the titles won during their respective eras.
In that era when Liverpool were a powerhouse both home and abroad, going to three UCL finals, winning the UCL, going head to head with Manchester City in EPL title races and also winning the EPL, Mohamed Salah was never the solo star and it could even be argued that he wasn’t outrightly the best player in a team that boasted of the likes of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Georginio Wijnaldum, Virgil Van Dijk and two of the most creative premier league full-backs in Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Meanwhile, Hazard was at several points in his Chelsea career, the only one whom the team could look up to for a moment of inspiration or magic in difficult games. Pound for pound, that Liverpool team had more star power. In my humble opinion, Eden Hazard did make more impact than any other winger of this era during his time in the Premier League, he never really needed to score or assist to influence a game, he was a nightmare to opposition full-backs, centre-backs, and even defensive midfielders.
Opposing teams always knew what was coming but had no answer to a cheat code of a footballer, a force of nature that made even the most hostile premier league grounds his playground. 100 Man of the Match awards in his career, a record only bettered by Lionel Messi (395), Cristiano Ronaldo (176), and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (116) gives credence to this fact.
In regard to the comparison with Neymar, I believe Neymar is the most talented amongst the three. Asides from the Messis and Ronaldos, Neymar is easily the most gifted footballer of this era little wonder he was once dubbed the heir to the throne of the GOATS and not many would have envisaged that Neymar wouldn’t have a Ballon d’Or to his name at this stage of his career. Flair, dribbles, creativity, and a proper goalscoring threat, Neymar in his prime possessed genuine game-changing qualities.
From his days as a wonderkid in Santos to being a key member of the MSN at Barcelona to his exploits at PSG and his records for the Brazilian national team, the facts speak for themselves. Brazil’s greatest goalscorer in history with 79 goals ahead of football greats like Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho amongst others while being a player of Neymar’s profile in this era is very remarkable, not forgetting he has also had his injury challenges even up till this point while he plays in Saudi Arabia for Al Hilal.
Meanwhile, many would have wished Eden Hazard continued his career but he is already enjoying his retirement at the age of 32. League titles, European trophies, league cups alongside other individual awards, Hazard will surely go down as one of the greatest to have ever played the sport and his legacy is chiseled into the hearts of many football fans already, especially those associated with Chelsea Football Club.
By: Moses Onyilo Adikwu / @Moe_Adikwu
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Clive Rose – Getty Images