Should Eden Hazard follow Philippe Coutinho to La Liga for Ballon d'Or?
For the best part of a decade, any emerging forward player of note has had to toil away under the distant glass ceiling of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. That relentless duopoly has made the Ballon d'Or a closed shop since 2008, but when their stranglehold finally loosens, the concept of a "world class" attacking player will go through a sudden reassessment.
Some of those new pretenders have already assembled and are making sure they're in the right place at the right time. Neymar has already forced himself away from Messi's Camp Nou shadow to lead Paris Saint-Germain, Kylian Mbappe now has the platform to push on, and Kevin De Bruyne has worked his way into the heart of the most impressive team in Europe. Antoine Griezmann is surely poised for the post-Atletico chapter of his career, too. But what about Eden Hazard?
As Hazard reaches the age at which roving, ball-carrying forwards ought to be at their peaks -- and when Messi and Ronaldo were already long-settled into their 50-goal-a-season grooves -- there is a strong argument that Hazard has done all he can in a Chelsea shirt. Under five managers in as many years at Stamford Bridge, Hazard (with the startling exception of Jose Mourinho's frazzled, mutinous title defence in 2015-16) has zipped, skipped and scythed his way around the Premier League with few dramas.
Aside from Hazard's obvious qualities -- most notably, his ability to accelerate and decelerate from and to a standing start in what seems like an instant -- his durability is what often goes underappreciated. While other foreign imports frequently speak about having to adapt to English football's rather more unforgiving approach to physical contact, he has been picking himself up from the turf without a grumble since 2012. He isn't impossible to stop; it's just that he keeps getting back up for more.
Short but certainly not slight, Hazard sits among the 10 most fouled attacking players in Europe this season, an inevitable occupational concern that comes with an unshakeable belief in his ability to beat a man with the ball at his feet. Hazard averages just over six successful dribbles per 90 minutes (just behind Neymar and just ahead of Messi), a habit that often ends in some desperate, brutal attempts to stop him.
Despite running that bruising gauntlet, Hazard has missed just 20 league games in five-and-a-half seasons. His most serious injury in that time, a broken ankle suffered while training with Belgium back in June, delayed his start to the season until September but appears to have had little effect on his willingness to dart through the tightest of defensive gaps. But given that he is fouled once for every 30 minutes of Premier League football, how many years of exploding out of the blocks or executing 180-degree spins does he have left?
Meanwhile, thanks in huge part to the excesses of Messi and Ronaldo and the death of strike partnerships, goals have become the rock-solid currency for the Ballon d'Or market. Neymar recognised as much when he swapped the shooting gallery of La Liga for the carnival game that is Ligue 1, and his goal ratio has increased accordingly.
When it comes to the cold, heartless numbers at least, Hazard's output simply doesn't tally with his ability. Only once, in his resurgent form of last season, has Hazard broken the 15-goal barrier in the Premier League, and he has yet to score 20 across all competitions since his farewell season at Lille as a 21-year-old. His attitude in the final third of the pitch is a curious combination of perfectionism and unselfishness, neither of which do his tally many favours. Back in April, when anticipating a definitive season for Hazard's career, his teammate Cesc Fabregas urged the Belgium star to be more indulgent when faced with backpedalling defenders.
"Sometimes when we have a counter attack and it's two against two and he passes the ball, I tell him, 'You have the capability to score by yourself. Do it.' He has to do it more often. I've told him many, many times: He needs to be selfish sometimes and have that killer instinct to score more goals. I hope, and I'm sure, he will improve in the future. And then he will be unstoppable."
Though rarely prone to overexcitement, Hazard half-agreed. "Sometimes I prefer to pass the ball," he said. "I sometimes want the other one to shine, not me. ... I know it's good for me to score more goals if I want to reach the level of Messi and Ronaldo. I'm working on it."
The decisive extra motivation to break that habit perhaps lies elsewhere. Just as Philippe Coutinho puts the finishing touches on the move that takes his expansive repertoire of free-kicks and 30-yard shots to a new level at Barcelona, it's the perfect time for Hazard, 27, to take his daggering forward surges to more prolific surroundings as well.
Having elevated himself into the periphery of the Ballon d'Or discussion, Hazard is at risk of hitting the wall. Among the mixed fortunes of Belgium's sudden generational bloom, he's arguably no longer their crown jewel. He has been eclipsed by De Bruyne in terms of creative consistency and arguably now as a footballing spectacle, a development that would have seemed unthinkable when they were brief Chelsea teammates back in 2013-14.
Hazard's latent attacking threat -- and the modest totals of goals and assists that threaten to undermine it -- can't help but make you wonder what he could produce at a perennial Champions League contender. Chelsea haven't often been cast as the prey that is a selling club: you'd have to go back to 2007 and Arjen Robben's departure to find a player who left Stamford Bridge with the direct intention of better things. Real Madrid were the escape route 10 years ago and remain the most viable option this time round.
The Ballon d'Or might seem like a strange obsession to anyone bar the players who might win it, not to mention a crude way of charting a player's career trajectory, but Hazard has only once (in 2015) broken into the ballot's top 10. The time for a change in gear is now, and in order for that to happen, he surely has to hit the open road.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.