Can Jose Mourinho finally stop Eden Hazard when Man Utd host Chelsea?
There is unfinished business between Jose Mourinho and Eden Hazard. The pair meet for the third time this season on Sunday when Manchester United host Chelsea at Old Trafford. The Portuguese needs to come up with a plan to deal with the winger or United's top four hopes will be in tatters.
Mourinho has tried tactics. In October at Stamford Bridge he set up his team to kill the game and flood the areas where Chelsea's creative players operated. He was rewarded with a 4-0 humiliation. Hazard ran wild and scored a goal.
The United manager has tried brute force. Last month in the FA Cup quarterfinal, the Red Devils took turns fouling the Belgium international instead. When Mourinho was Hazard's manager at Chelsea he questioned the player's heart. In the cup tie, United tested the 26-year-old's resilience by subjecting him to rough treatment. Hazard passed the test and Chelsea proceeded to the semifinals with a 1-0 victory. Again, Hazard was the best player on the pitch.
In Mourinho's last season as Chelsea manager, he arguably brought out the worst in Hazard. So far, when the 54-year-old has been in opposition to his former player, Hazard has been at his brilliant best. Before the quarterfinal last month, there was a buzz around the Bridge. The word was that Hazard wanted to put on a show for his former boss. There was a purpose and energy about the forward even in the warm-up. The very presence of Mourinho is motivation enough.
These two men won a Premier League title together two years ago and Hazard collected both footballer of the year awards, but by then their relationship was already on shaky ground. Mourinho values work-rate above talent and has a deep suspicion of flair players who he feels only contribute when they are on the ball.
From the moment the manager returned to Stamford Bridge for his second spell in charge four years ago, the "Special One" handled Hazard in a slightly patronizing manner. The message was clear: Do what I tell you and you'll become a good player. A style of management was never going to work with one of Europe's finest emerging talents.
In Mourinho's final months at Chelsea, Hazard became a lightning rod for the turmoil at the club. The winger was dropped for a game against Aston Villa and afterwards, Mourinho humiliated the player in front of the television cameras. Explaining why he had left Hazard out, Mourinho said: "When you don't have the ball, quality means nothing and what means [something]..." Then, the manager tapped his chest to indicate his heart before continuing. "You have it or you don't."
Of course, there are still some flaws in Hazard's game. He will never be a hardworking, backtracking winger; it would be a waste of his talents and Mourinho isn't the only manager who has been frustrated by the Belgian's urge to remain up field when the opposition have the ball. Early in Antonio Conte's tenure at Chelsea, he expected Hazard to track rival full-backs. During the 3-0 rout by Arsenal at the Emirates in September, the winger switched off as the Gunners poured forward and let Hector Bellerin drift into the area unmarked. The full-back was able to cross for Theo Walcott to score Arsenal's second goal.
After that game, Conte changed his system. Most of the praise that has been heaped on the Chelsea manager for his tactical acumen has focused on the revamp of the defence. An important by-product of the system, which uses three centre-backs, two wing-backs and two holding midfielders, has been the freedom it has allowed Hazard to do what he does best: attack the opposition. Conte hasn't quite built the team around his star winger but he has developed a way of playing that suits Hazard. As the team have thrived, so too has Hazard.
Last month, Mourinho tried to man-mark Hazard. Phil Jones was detailed to stick close to Chelsea's danger man, seemingly the one United player under instruction not to kick the winger. The rest of the team tried to make physical contact any time they arrived in the same vicinity as Hazard; it backfired. Ander Herrera was sent off for two silly bookings and the tactic didn't slow the target of Man United's rough treatment.
So what does Mourinho have in store for Hazard at Old Trafford. Another physical test? The United manager will need to be more creative to neutralise the Belgian.
So far, Mourinho has only succeeded in stopping Hazard when both were at Stamford Bridge and the manager chose to drop one of Europe's finest attackers. If the winger still bears a grudge, there will be no holding him back at Old Trafford.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.