Anyone who had the good fortune of watching Gianfranco Zola play will know he and Eden Hazard share many similarities on the pitch, not least the ability to thrill a Stamford Bridge crowd.
Hazard was at it again on Thursday as we advanced to the Carabao Cup final with a penalty shoot-out victory over Tottenham. He scored a fine goal, his 13th of the campaign, and later walked away with yet another man of the match award following a virtuoso display that terrified Tottenham’s defence.
Zola, who also relied on his skill rather than his size when he lit up the Premier League two decades ago, has drawn his own comparisons with our Belgian maestro, and explained how he and Maurizio Sarri are working to get the very maximum out of Hazard.
‘I was very much like Eden,’ started Zola.
‘I was an instinctive player. I liked to have the freedom to move around the pitch, to find the spots where I could receive the ball, turn and cause damage to the opposition.
‘I believe we try to give him this freedom. Also, we are trying to be an organised team, defensively and offensively, but especially defensively. That’s why we ask Eden sometimes to put himself about and work hard.
‘I know it’s not his best quality. We understand sometimes he needs to be fresh when he receives the ball. There is no doubt we are on the same page. We want to find a common ground where he can get the best out of himself, and also the team can benefit from him not only scoring goals, but also when we need everybody to press and defend.
‘Maurizio said he believes the potential is greater than the performance,’ Zola continued.
‘He is not saying he is not happy with what Eden is doing; he just believes he can do more for himself and the team. We need to try and get him as close as possible to what he did on Thursday, but we know to do that every single game is impossible.’
Zola, an FA Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and League Cup winner with Chelsea, remembered the times during his career when didn’t play in his customary position in attack. Playing with a big man did help him as he believes it does Hazard.
‘Towards the end of my career in Cagliari I played in a different positon, but also in Parma when I played alongside [Faustino] Asprilla. We were two false nines. It’s a position where you get a lot of balls. I enjoyed it.
‘When I first came here I had Mark Hughes, or Luca Vialli. When I could play off them it was much better. It gave me space and freedom. I would use their physicality to get the spaces I wanted.
‘Eden has a very good understanding with Olivier Giroud, and I am sure he will pick up the same good understanding with Gonzalo [Higuain].’