Eden Hazard faces crucial month as Chelsea need his brilliance
The pressure is on Eden Hazard. The next month will define Chelsea's season and, perhaps, the 27-year-old's spell at Stamford Bridge. It is a critical moment in the Belgium international's career.
Hazard played well in his side's 1-1 draw against Barcelona in the Champions League knockout round first leg but his performance might have summed up his time in west London. As good as he was, the winger was overshadowed by Lionel Messi. Not only that, but the player who has the talent to be Chelsea's leading man was asked by Antonio Conte to operate as a "false 9." Instead of being the focus for his team's creativity, Hazard performed a role that did not entirely suit him.
Hazard has been at Stamford Bridge for six years. He joined Chelsea when they were European champions and was expected to lead the club into a period of domination. Hazard was the kid with his sights on Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the youngster aiming to crash their Ballon d'Or party, but he has never quite reached those heights.
It is unfair to criticise Hazard for being unable to match the brilliance of Messi and Ronaldo, of course, but the winger has the technique and talent to be compared with the very best. He just needs to display all of his talents over the coming weeks if Chelsea are to keep their season on track.
On Sunday, the Blues travel to Old Trafford for a crucial Premier League clash against Manchester United. Not only is the match vital to Chelsea's pursuit of a top-four place but it pits Hazard against his nemesis, Jose Mourinho. A week later Conte takes his team up north again, this time to the Etihad to face Manchester City. Pep Guardiola's side comprehensively outplayed Chelsea in the reverse fixture, a 1-0 victory where the scoreline did not accurately reflect City's dominance. Two defeats would jeopardise qualification for next year's Champions League.
A relatively straightforward home fixture against Crystal Palace then precedes the second leg against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. If Hazard can produce dominant displays during this stretch of matches, Chelsea can look forward to the final weeks of the campaign with a real positivity.
This is Hazard's time to shine. There have never been any doubts about his ability. His pace, trickery and vision place him in the top echelon of players. The only question is whether he can control games on a consistent basis.
Could his choice of club have something to do with it? Chelsea was probably the wrong club to join for a young player seeking stability. Since Hazard's arrival in 2012, he's worked under five different managers and there will probably be a sixth in the summer: Conte is highly unlikely to remain in charge after the end of the campaign. As a result, tactics and philosophies have changed with the seasons with each of the managers building around Hazard but only in the loosest sense.
Hazard's role has therefore changed repeatedly over the years. The winger has been central to the success but with little real coherence and planning around him. The mindset in the Chelsea boardroom means that the manager's influence on transfers is downgraded and recruitment is not tailored to the desires of the man picking the team. That has made it hard to build a cogent framework, which then allows Hazard to produce at his optimum level.
It says much for the Belgium international's mentality that he has survived and, to a large extent, thrived at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea have won two titles, a League Cup and a Europa League during Hazard's spell in west London. It has been a tough place for talented players who need to be nurtured and developed -- ask Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne -- but Hazard has survived a period of constant change with relative equilibrium. That is in part because of his personality. Hazard is as intelligent off the pitch as he is on it. He is thoughtful and quiet. While not a big, voluble dressing room presence, he leads by example.
Some, rather unfairly, have questioned Hazard's application. During his second spell as Chelsea manager, Mourinho cast doubt on his star's commitment, suggesting in a television interview that the winger lacked heart. He's been linked with a move to Real Madrid during the summer but there are influential voices at the Bernabeu who doubt whether the Chelsea man has the driving ambition to lead the team in the post-Ronaldo era. Yet that narrative doesn't take into account the conditions Hazard has endured at the Bridge. In a more stable environment, and with a team built to play to his strengths, the winger may well be closer to Messi and Ronaldo in terms of reputation.
So how far away is he? In December, the Chelsea man barely crept into the top 20 of Ballon d'Or voting. He finished 19th, a position much too low for a player of such sublime talent. And so the month ahead gives Hazard a chance to change perceptions. His relationship with Mourinho, a manager notoriously suspicious of flair players, was not ideal. If any opponent is going to inspire the winger into a match-winning performance, it is the United boss.
A week later Chelsea face a different sort of manager. Guardiola embraces talented individuals and designs his teams to get the best out of his attackers. The Catalan is an admirer of Hazard and is likely to show interest if there is any hint that he could leave Stamford Bridge in the summer. An impressive display at the Etihad would do the Belgian no harm at all.
The biggest stage, though, is the Camp Nou. With the tie tilted in Barca's favour thanks to Messi's goal, the conditions are perfect for the winger to show that he ranks with the very best. The time has come for Hazard to make a statement.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.