He might have a winners’ medal in his pocket at the end of his first LaLiga season, but Eden Hazard is in no mood to spare himself.
Long touted as a potential marquee signing for Real Madrid, the Belgium star made the move to the Santiago Bernabeu for an initial €100million last June.
However, by the time Zinedine Zidane had masterminded a post-lockdown overhaul of Barcelona to claim the title, the dream had long since turned into something of a nightmare.
“We have won the title collectively this year, considering it has certainly been the worst season of my career individually,” Hazard told France Info after injury woes – most notably a broken foot that required surgery – restricted him to 16 top-flight appearances.
He scored once in 1,086 LaLiga minutes and has failed to find the net in five Champions League appearances for the 13-time winners so far.
The peculiarity of this elongated season means a chance to salvage something arrives on Friday in familiar surroundings.
Madrid are 2-1 in arrears ahead of their last-16 second leg against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. If a remontada is to become reality, they will probably need an individual to step up and produce something truly special – particularly considering talismanic captain Sergio Ramos is suspended.
It was another Belgian, Kevin De Bruyne, who stole the show in the Spanish capital back in February as he majestically created Gabriel Jesus’ equaliser before dispatching the winner from the penalty spot.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 23, 2020
Although firm friends throughout their gilded careers, it is hard to imagine the distinction of being Belgium’s outstanding footballer lying elsewhere sitting too well with the lavishly gifted Hazard.
Perhaps an outing in east Manchester can stir a return to his very best.
In December of the 2016-17 season, City and Chelsea were neck and neck at the top of the Premier League when the Londoners travelled north.
De Bruyne hit the crossbar from point-blank range with the hosts 1-0 up and then Hazard took over, the master conductor as Antonio Conte’s Blues took apart Pep Guardiola’s men on the counter-attack. He scored the game-sealing goal in a 3-1 victory as a disintegrating City finished with Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho sent off.
In the return match at Stamford Bridge, Hazard netted a brace in 2-1 win that put Chelsea on the brink of the Premier League title.
His efforts that year yielded 16 goals and five assists, sitting handsomely alongside the 14 goals and nine assists from 2014-15 when he first inspired the Stamford Bridge outfit to glory. City came second in that earlier campaign and Hazard walked off with the PFA and FWA end-of-season awards.
— Eden Hazard (@hazardeden10) August 1, 2020
There is no suggestion that, at 29, Hazard will not be able to scale such heights again. Whether he can this week, however, is another matter.
Zidane seems to be as in the dark as anyone else.
“I think Eden had little [injury] problems recently because, when he finished playing [against Villarreal], he had problems; he didn’t end well,” he told reporters after Hazard’s final appearance of the LaLiga season in Madrid’s penultimate match.
In the final six games of the campaign, the after-effects of Hazard’s injury woes restricted him to 70 minutes on the field. The outing against Villarreal accounted for 62 of those.
“I hope that, with this break, he recovers completely,” Zidane added. “Those that know about this, about looking after players, will try to get Eden well again.”
It is probably wise to look towards 2020-21 with a clean slate. But maybe all it will take is one elegant shuffle of the feet, a deft lay-off or one of those beautifully balanced dribbles for the memories to come flooding back – for both Hazard and those in sky blue trying to stop him – in the country where he forged a path to the top of the game.
Published 06 Aug 2020, 12:30 IST