In the first part of a Christmas special feature-length look at what makes Eden Hazard the person and the player he is, we hear in depth from the man himself, and also enlist the help of two of his team-mates, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro, to find out more about life alongside our brilliant Belgian…
It’s the morning of our Carabao Cup quarter-final tie against Bournemouth. Eden Hazard sits down in the reception room at Cobham and puffs out his cheeks.
‘Forty kids! It was crazy!’
He’s talking about his son’s eighth birthday party the day before. ‘The best age to celebrate’, he concludes.
There’s a glint in Hazard’s eye. He turns 28 in a couple of weeks’ time, but such is his joie de vivre, his insatiable appetite for good times on and off the pitch, you suspect he had as much fun at that party as those 20 years his junior.
‘I came as a kid. Now I’m a big man!’
Hazard laughs. The conversation has turned to his own development since he swapped Lille for London in the summer of 2012.
‘Football is my job, but I enjoyed it 20 years ago, I enjoyed it 10 years ago and I enjoy it now. In that respect I haven’t changed a lot.
‘I prepare for games exactly the same as I did when I was younger. But now the difference is that I am getting older and I need to take more care of my body. I work a bit in the gym with the physio. Five years ago I just enjoyed training and then I went home.
‘Now I take my time. Recovery sessions are important for me now. That’s the big change, but after that I’m the same guy, with the same happiness on the pitch.’
It is difficult to think of an elite-level footballer who appreciates the beauty of his art as much as Hazard. His passion for the sport is childlike, and infectious. It reminds you why you fell in love with it in the first place.
Some critics of his have cited his unselfishness on the pitch, his inferior ‘numbers’ compared to those of, say, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, as a reason why he will never reach football’s very top echelon. But there can be no questioning Hazard’s output this term. At the time of the interview, his nine assists is the most recorded by anyone in Europe’s top five leagues. Only he and Messi have scored and assisted eight or more goals already.
‘I saw that,’ Hazard nods.
Assists in Europe's top five leagues at 25 December
‘I have never thought about myself; I just try to play for my team-mates. I spend more time in the middle of the pitch now so I am more like a playmaker. Sometimes I am lucky to pass the ball and we score; sometimes not!
‘I want to keep this thing as a part of my football: playing for my team-mates. If everyone can shine it’s good. I’m happy with my form and with what we have done so far this season. For four months now we have been enjoying playing football with the team and the new manager.
‘Personally I feel like I went on to another level because of the World Cup,’ he adds of the tournament in which his country came third and he won the Silver Ball.
‘I think before the World Cup people thought I was a good player, but after the World Cup they were saying I was one of the best players in the world. That’s the level I want to reach and stay at. I think since the beginning of the season I have done pretty well.
‘I know I play for one of the biggest clubs in the world, and I can improve a lot in the future I think. I need to score more goals; we need to win more trophies. I won already a lot with Chelsea, but when you play for Chelsea you want big trophies like the Champions League, and to reach finals.’
We have all had the good fortune of watching Hazard at his exhilarating, unstoppable best in a Chelsea career that now spans 321 games and has included 99 goals.
But how about actually sharing a pitch with him? We asked the two most decorated members of our squad, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro, what it is about Hazard’s game that impresses them as fellow attack-minded players.
‘He is very good playing with his back to goal,’ Fabregas starts.
‘That’s a difficult quality, especially in England. They press you high, they go in very hard, and he has this strong body with low gravity. He is very quick on the turn.
‘For players like me who always try to play between the lines, it helps a lot. That’s why I basically look for him all the time. I also think he is very underrated with his final ball. He has got a lot of good vision. He is intelligent. He doesn’t just dribble and then pass it back. There is a purpose to everything Eden does.’
The statistics bear out their on-pitch relationship. Fabregas has assisted more of Hazard’s Premier League goals than anyone else (six), and Hazard has set up more of Fabregas’s Premier League goals than anyone else (four).
Meanwhile Pedro and Hazard have combined for seven league goals in the three-and-a-half seasons they have spent together at Stamford Bridge, most recently at Brighton when the Spaniard was the beneficiary of an exquisite pass from the man he calls ‘a big star’ and puts in the same bracket as former team-mates such as Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
‘For me it’s good to find him and have combinations, one-twos, and create space,’ analyses Pedro.
‘It’s very difficult to mark him because he moves a lot in between the lines. He is very good at dribbling, he scores goals, he assists team-mates. He’s a complete player and the best here for sure. Eden is a machine on the pitch.’
When it comes to accepting compliments, Hazard is nothing but humble, always keen to divert praise on to his team-mates. He knows as well the environment at Cobham helps get the best out of him.
‘The good thing with this dressing room is that we are always happy. Of
It’s a sentiment he reiterates when we ask him for a message for Blues fans at this special time of year.
‘Keep supporting Chelsea in good moments and bad. In England the league is very hard, we can win or lose, but we are Chelsea and in the
‘All over the world, enjoy Christmas and enjoy New Year. Be careful, because these celebrations can be a bit hard sometimes, but keep enjoying football and I will try to make you happy.’
Within hours he’s delivering on that target yet again.
It’s the evening of our Carabao Cup tie with Bournemouth. Half-an-hour remains, and the teams are deadlocked. Maurizio Sarri turns to his main man. The biggest cheer of the night so far welcomes Hazard on to the pitch. He’s quickly in the thick of the action, driving Chelsea forward, getting a couple of long-distance shots away.
There are six minutes left when another sub, Pedro, initiates a move wide left. He finds Hazard, who returns the pass. Pedro’s backheel is left by Emerson for the onrushing Hazard to force into the net. It’s a perfect example of the combination play between the lines Pedro brought up a couple of days earlier.
There is still time for Hazard to set up very good chances for Emerson and Olivier Giroud to double our lead, but one goal proves enough. Our two-legged meeting with Tottenham next month will be the 10th semi-final we have contested since our brilliant Belgian joined.
In the press conference afterwards, Gianfranco Zola, himself a Chelsea legend, expresses his excitement at ‘Eden achieving great things with the club’. Not far away, in one of the TV studios in the Stamford Bridge tunnel, Ross Barkley becomes the latest team-mate to heap praise on Hazard.
‘He is relaxed but once he is on the training pitch he is magical,’ beams Barkley. ‘He plays with a smile and that is the way you have to approach the game: you have to be laid back and on game day, be ready to make things happen.’
Before Hazard himself leaves Stamford Bridge and heads home, there is one more job for him to fulfil. A lucky BridgeKids competition winner, 12-year-old Santiago, is waiting pitchside to interview the evening’s matchwinner. Hazard is typically generous with his time and his humour, and finishes by complimenting the young supporter’s line of questioning and interview technique. It brings us back to something Hazard reflected upon at the beginning of the day.
‘Like my dad used to say a lot, I don’t want people to remember me as a good player. I want people to remember me as a good guy, more outside of football than for football. Then it’s the education I can bring. I take care of this. Now I have three boys and I am more focused on this.
‘Like I said before, I just want to enjoy my football. If people remember me as a good player it’s fine. I hope they will! But I just try to give my best in the moment. That’s it.’
By Rupert Cane
In the second part of our Eden Hazard feature, he discusses what it’s been like working with Maurizio Sarri and Gianfranco Zola, and also talks about his leadership qualities in what has been a breakthrough year back home. There is more from Fabregas and Pedro, too, as well as words from a Belgian journalist, who contextualises Hazard’s achievements with the national team in 2018…