Chelsea need to resolve Eden Hazard future to avoid Thibaut Courtois repeat
Maurizio Sarri's reign as Chelsea manager has got off to the best possible start.
Three wins from three matches sees the Stamford Bridge outfit joint-top of the Premier League with Blues supporters full of enthusiastic cheer for the new manager and the way he has totally revamped the club's playing style. The drudgery and suffering associated with predecessor Antonio Conte has soon been forgotten as Chelsea have bamboozled their opponents to date this season with defence-dizzying 'pass and move', and high-intensity, high-press football.
Midfield metronome Jorginho, who arrived from Napoli as Sarri did this summer, has been at the hub of the action and been lavished with praise by pundits and fans alike. But it is the familiar figure of Chelsea's most gifted player, Eden Hazard, who remains the main man when it comes to giving the Blues a cutting edge.
However, there's a problem with the 27-year-old, and it's one that will scratch away continually at Sarri this season unless a solution is found.
Hazard's future at Chelsea has long been the subject of intense speculation, with Real Madrid constantly linked with a bid, while the winger's £200,000-a-week contract expires on June 30, 2020 and to date he has resisted signing a new deal rumoured to be worth £300,000-a-week.
Real could test Chelsea's resolve in the next couple of days, before the Spanish transfer window closes on Friday, but even if a colossal sum in the region of the world record £198m fee Paris Saint-Germain paid for Neymar was offered, Sarri would certainly urge Blues owner Roman Abramovich to resist it.
Given the opportunity to bring in a replacement has passed, Hazard's departure could prove ruinous to Chelsea's chances of getting back into the Champions League and challenging for the domestic title.
On the positive side Hazard has stated he is going nowhere this summer. The departure of his idol Zinedine Zidane from the managerial hot-seat at the Bernabeu perhaps watered down the appeal of a move to Real and even his father Thierry, who is involved in his representation and has made a pest of himself in the past with remarks about his son moving to the Spanish capital, recently stated it may never come together.
Unfortunately, there is also a big negative. Hazard has now apparently adopted a "wait and see" stance with a recent report suggesting that he would only consider signing a new contract if Chelsea qualify for the Champions League. That presents an issue: It will be May next year by the time that outcome is known and by then Hazard's contract would be down to one season and his transfer value decimated. A greater concern perhaps is that it is also quite possible that even if Champions League qualification were secured he might still refuse to sign and agitate for a move away.
If Chelsea want to avoid a repeat of the infuriating and costly drama associated with Hazard's countryman Thibaut Courtois, who repeatedly pushed back on signing a new contract before going AWOL and being sold for a cut-price £35m to Real this summer, then they need to act now not nine months down the line.
Ironically, it is Hazard himself who will play an instrumental part in determining whether or not Chelsea meet his own exacting requirements. A glance at his contributions so far this season is enough to silence any dissenting voices that might challenge his true value to the club.
Still recuperating from World Cup exertions, the Belgian was restricted a 14 minute cameo off the bench against Huddersfield in the opening game -- time enough to conjure a wonderful assist for Pedro to score his side's third goal. In the next match against Arsenal, Sarri deployed him for the final half an hour, and once again he made a telling difference conjuring up some wizardry to set up Marcos Alonso for Chelsea's winner.
Finally, against Newcastle United on Sunday, having been kicked from pillar to post trying to find a way through the Magpies' dogged defence, Hazard scored Chelsea's opening goal from the penalty spot. Playing the full 90 minutes, the No. 10 was heavily involved in most of his side's attacking play and it could be argued that had he not been available to Sarri the final score might have been less favourable.
Nothing lasts forever of course, but Chelsea as a bare minimum have to protect their financial interest in Hazard even if this means tying him down to a contract with a sizeable buy-out clause inserted which is exercisable should they fail to qualify for the Champions League.
The time to do this is now, not only would it put an end to the constant speculation surrounding Hazard, but it would also give Chelsea and Sarri time to plan ahead without the type of disruptive, morale-sapping brinkmanship that Courtois brought to bear on the club.