Eden Hazard's ongoing form slump is of concern to him and Chelsea
The story from the Chelsea training ground is that Eden Hazard didn't take too much notice of Roy Keane's comments on TV, in which the former Manchester United captain said he "would kick [Hazard] up and down the training pitch" if the Belgian were his teammate.
That words like that are fairly easy to shut out is because they are just the latest -- though maybe most extreme -- example of criticism received by Hazard throughout this season. However, the wider point is that the ongoing judgment reflects how quiet Hazard has been in 2015-16 and makes a mockery of the talk -- occasionally nudged by the player himself -- that links him with Paris Saint-Germain or Real Madrid.
The extent of Hazard's drop-off is unprecedented in the Premier League era. In 2014-15, Hazard scored 14 goals and added nine assists in 28 games. This season, the numbers are zero and two in 20. No reigning PFA player of the year has suffered such a decline in the next season.
Last July, then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho claimed his forward had had a better season than Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese won the PFA award in 2007 and 2008 -- at the age of 22 and 23 -- but, while he has since accelerated to another level entirely, the same cannot be said for Hazard.
Now 25, he has decelerated to the point that last season's dominant Premier League player is barely having any impact at all at present. Most recently, he was ineffective against Paris Saint-Germain in Chelsea's 2-1 defeat on Tuesday, continuing a trend of subdued performances.
The question is: Why has he declined and how quickly can it be turned around? There is not any long-term worry from those at Chelsea about his play, but they do wonder how he can rediscover his best form and where to start as they seek tom help him get back to his best.
One reason offered to ESPN FC by those close to the player is simple wear and tear. Hazard hasn't really had a proper rest in three years. More recently, he has been injured in the past five weeks, and is still recovering full fitness. That follows an entirely unsatisfactory preseason.
As has since become known, Mourinho got the timing of his preparation work for this campaign wrong, and the entire Chelsea team were playing catch-up from then. They began preseason too late and Hazard was one of the players most affected, although he was not one of the players who fully turned against the Portuguese manager before he left the club. Hazard did not "love" Mourinho, but he did respect him.
While Chelsea have lost just once under Guus Hiddink, though, Hazard own issues have continued. One source says that this is the first prolonged dip of the player's career and, as a consequence, he doesn't really know how to handle it. He tries to maintain a positive outlook and give off the right impression but it's hard not to escape the perception he looks a bit "lost" and keeps doing things wrong.
"This is the first time this has happened to me, but it was always going to happen at some stage," said Hazard recently. "You have to learn from it. I'm a human being, not a machine. I've been a professional since I was 16, so maybe that has had an influence too.".
Former Premier League top scorer Chris Sutton knows what it's like to have a bad season at Chelsea, having struggled there in 1999-2000 after a big-money move from Blackburn Rovers, and can recognise a player suffering self-doubt.
"[Hazard] looks like a player who doesn't really believe in his ability," Sutton told ESPN FC. "I had a dodgy year at Chelsea and, when you're in a forward position, and you have that doubt and hesitation... you see it when he has the ball. His game is based on his ability to go past people but, now, he comes back on himself. In my view, that's not the sign of a player full of confidence. He's a player who, at the moment, looks confused."
So, how can Hazard recover that clarity of mind and confidence?
"I always think you try and go back to source, back to what you're good at," Sutton says. "He is a rare type, with that ability to go past people. There aren't many players who have that natural ability. It may be a little bit tougher. This could arguably be the biggest test he will face in his career."
Solving it should certainly come before any thoughts of a move away from Stamford Bridge. Sources close to Hazard say that, while he would obviously be interested in Real Madrid, he doesn't really want to return to the French league and would only see PSG as a last resort. It just suits any negotiating position to leave the prospect hanging there as leverage.
The problem is that, right now, he isn't exactly playing to the level that would trouble too many Ligue 1 teams either. For a player responsible for so much bewitching magic last season, it's been a long time since his last trick. Indeed, he's made much of it disappear.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.