Welcome Back, Eden Hazard - The Belgian Winger's Resurgence Is A Worrying Sign For Chelsea's Rivals

02/09/2016 16:49

Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur traditionally hate each other, so it was particularly satisfying for Blues fans when their side hammered the final nail in Spurs' Premier League title bid last season. It happened on one rambunctious night inside Stamford Bridge - an evening that saw the home supporters chant "Leicester! Leicester! Champions Champions!" and a match in which Mauricio Pochettino's men fell from grace spectacularly, surrendering any sense of discipline in collecting a record nine yellow cards. It was also the night Chelsea got their Hazard back.

Last season, Eden Hazard was far from happy with life at Chelsea. Freshly crowned as the PFA Player of the Year for the 2014/15 season after an outstanding campaign in which he propelled Jose Mourinho's side to Premier League glory. Then, in Chelsea's 15/16 opener, Hazard went down injured under a challenge from Ashley Williams. That robust tackle from the Wales captain transpired to set the tone for a tempestuous and vexatious season for both Hazard and his club.

For that was the challenge that launched Mourinho's explosion of emotions towards Dr Eva Carneiro and physiotherapist Jon Fearn, prompting a brouhaha that overshadowed footballing matters at Chelsea and shaped the Portuguese coach's final few months at the club. And for Hazard, his injury against Swansea was the first bump in an arduous season when he became one of the division's stalling superstars.

Hazard's nadir was broadcast to a global audience against Leicester City, depicting a tension between himself and Mourinho that portrayed both men's current mindset at the club. Hazard was challenged by Jamie Vardy and signalled to be substituted. Mourinho disagreed and spoke to the Belgian winger briefly. Hazard continued, but briefly. After receiving a pass, he stopped, winced and took himself off, gesturing dismissively towards his manager as he did so. The exchange spoke volumes about the critical breakdown in the relationship between manager and star player, but it was the former who left the club merely three days later.

Following Mourinho's departure and the appointment of Guus Hiddink on an interim basis, Hazard began to show flickers of his electric best once again, scoring twice against Bournemouth in a 4-1 win. But sometimes a player of significant stature at a club needs an equally significant moment to lift his spirits. Hazard pulled that off against Spurs, curling a stupendous, arrowed right-footed effort into Hugo Lloris's top corner to confirm Leicester as champions. As the ball nestled into the back of the net, Hazard wheeled away in celebration, sliding on his knees awaiting the embrace of his teammates. There was a sense, among the Chelsea supporters, that Hazard had experienced a regeneration that night.

The 25-year-old proceeded to show some of his best form for Belgium at Euro 2016 and, now, it is a worrying sign for Chelsea's title rivals that the Hazard of France has shot out of the traps all guns blazing under Antonio Conte this season. Nurturing Hazard's renaissance was a key priority for the Italian upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge and it looks as though he will play a pivotal role in Conte's mission to return the club to the summit of English football.

Hazard's collapse in form and confidence last season, to the point where he admitted turning down an advance from Paris Saint-Germain would be difficult, seems like being a footnote in the Belgian's otherwise sparkling career since joining from Lille in 2012. The sulking, distracted shadow that lolloped around for much of last season has vanished. The real Hazard has stood up and is determined to put the past behind him.

Hazard, like several of the Premier League's creative forces, requires astute man-management, something he did not get from Mourinho during last season when his parting shot following the defeat by Leicester was that his players had 'betrayed him.' Conte's management style is built on strong motivational skills and the man who led Juventus to a hat-trick of Serie A titles appears to have effectively applied such an approach to his Chelsea first-team. Hazard looks back to his dynamic, exhilarating best and, along with the club's other attacking firepower, can be decisive in where the Premier League trophy ends up come May.

Add to that the form of serial matchwinner Diego Costa and Chelsea are shaping up promisingly for the season ahead. Conte has added N'Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi this summer, two players that will undoubtedly play their part in Chelsea's season, but Hazard once again looks as though he can be the major driving force in potentially delivering a fifth Premier League title in the Roman Abramovich era.

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