It’s ironic that the incident which kickstarted Eden Hazard’s season was a literal kick on the foot. When West Bromwich Albion’s Gareth Barry smashed into him from behind during their recent meeting with Chelsea and referee Jonathan Moss bizarrely failed to award a free-kick, Hazard clutched his boot in anguish and then hobbled around the Hawthorns pitch for the following few minutes. When the ball next arrived at his feet, he dribbled past two Baggies defenders and powered a shot towards goal which was converted on the rebound by Alvaro Morata.
They say don’t poke the bear, but it’s equally unwise to anger the laid back Belgian, as Eric Dier and Tottenham found out when their title dreams ended in ruins at Stamford Bridge in May 2016. Carrying a sense of injustice with him, the red mist descended. Only when it descends on Hazard, rather than lashing out he invariably produces his best form. He scored twice and tormented Tony Pulis’ side all afternoon.
Hazard’s 2017/2018 started slowly after missing the entire pre-season recovering from surgery on an ankle injury suffered on international duty in June. He returned to the first team in late August and gradually worked his way back to full fitness, but there was a sense that he wasn’t at his sharpest.
The first signs of life were evident in Chelsea’s best display of the campaign so far when they defeated Atletico Madrid 2-1 in the first Champions League game played at the Wanda Metropolitan. Antonio Conte switched from a 3-4-2-1 formation to a 3-5-1-1 with Hazard just off Morata. The duo combined superbly but that partnership was shelved when the Spaniard picked up a hamstring injury. Reunited in recent weeks, they’ve picked up where they left off in the Spanish capital.
Newcastle were on the receiving end of Hazard’s brilliance on Saturday. He shimmied his way through tight spaces, drifted past black and white shirts as if they were traffic cones, buried home the equaliser when Chelsea trailed and capped off a man of the match display with a Panenka spot kick on Antonin Panenka’s birthday. That was his 25th goal scored under Conte’s watch and Hazard has benefitted from a positional freedom not experienced with the Italian’s predecessors.
“Of course I’m enjoying it. Every time I’m on the pitch I enjoy it. I’m scoring goals, we’re winning games, what more could you want!”
The scary prospect is that Conte feels he hasn’t even neared his peak yet.
If Hazard is characterised by his mischievous and laid back nature, his international teammate Kevin De Bruyne is a different breed. Shy and calm off the field, he transforms into a cold-blooded and sharply focused figure on it. De Bruyne has been at the heart of Manchester City’s record-breaking start and Pep Guardiola has built the team around his talents.
De Bruyne’s first year working with Guardiola was marked by uncertainty. He missed games through injury and was leaned on to occupy multiple positions when City were without other regular starters. He played as a number ten, a winger, a false nine and even a wingback on one occasion, and that inconsistency affected his performances. Now though he is the creative fulcrum of their side, the embodiment of Guardiola’s footballing blueprint on the pitch.
Watching City over the past few months has been a joy, but De Bruyne, in particular, has stepped up to another tier. Rarely has a player crammed a season’s worth of highlight reel passes into individual games. He has the lot: there’s the right-to-left torpedo from his own half that sets off a counter attack, the slide rule pass either side for the forwards to finish, crosses fired low in the half space between goalkeeper and defenders, the pinpoint diagonal to advancing wide-men, the left-to-right stinger with the outside of his boot and – as demonstrated for David Silva’s winner against West Ham – the right-to-left scoop to the back post.
What was particularly extraordinary about that pass was the speed the ball went at with marginal back lift. It was similar to the pace and trajectory Juninho would get on a free-kick, only the ball was moving. The most startling statistic though is his accuracy considering the precise nature of the passes he attempts. He referenced the fact that Guardiola encourages him to try riskier balls, but despite that he has a completion rate of 84%. Added to that is an ability to play off both feet naturally.
An interesting observer watching the past couple of months must have been Roberto Martinez. The Belgium coach arguably has the Premier League’s best two footballers at his disposal, both of whom are excelling for their clubs. That hasn’t always necessarily proved the case when they’ve donned the Diables Rouges shirt. De Bruyne was brilliant at times during 2014 World Cup in Brazil while Hazard contributed one match winning salvo against Hungary at the European Championships in France.
Replicating club form together hasn’t always come easy, so Martinez’s job is to try and devise a system for both to flourish in. With Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku also within their ranks, Belgium have an embarrassment of attacking riches to choose from. The key for the former Everton coach is juggling all that talent and getting the most from them. Belgium are a tantalising prospect on paper, but often times gelling together so much quality can prove detrimental to the overall balance of the team. Next summer in Russia should be intriguing.