By Greg Stobart
Chelsea are leading the race to sign Lille sensation Eden Hazard and held discussions with the attacking midfielder’s representatives in January, Goal.com can reveal.
The £30 million-rated Belgian is almost certain to leave Lille at the end of the season and spoke to Blues officials last month with a view to a summer move.
Goal.com understands Hazard also spoke to at least one other club - believed to be Tottenham - and plans to sound out other interested Premier League teams between now and the summer before deciding on his future.
Liverpool and Manchester City have expressed an interest in Hazard while Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger made little secret of his desire to bring the 21-year-old to Emirates Stadium.
Hazard told French television last month that he has decided he will move to England at the end of the season amid interest from a host of elite clubs across Europe.
Chelsea are in the driving seat to land the starlet having discussed personal terms and spoken to the player's representatives in January, with Lille's knowledge, about how they plan to integrate him into the side alongside the likes of Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge.
Hazard, who has been heavily scouted by the Blues, is also attracted to the prospect of linking up with compatriots Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois at Stamford Bridge.
But he is also tempted by interest from other Premier League sides, such as Arsenal or Spurs, with a regular starting spot and Champions League football the two pre-requisites before he definitively agrees to a switch.
Hazard is understood to be ‘very indecisive’ about where he wants to play next season and while Chelsea are favourites, he is slightly concerned that he may find himself out of the Blues team, like Lukaku, potentially hampering his development.
Hazard - last season’s Ligue 1 player of the year - is also a target for mega-rich Paris Saint-Germain but has expressed his desire to test himself in English football.
"I want to play in England because it a style of play that I like," Hazard told Canal+ last month.
"I want to play for a big club, but also one where I will play every week.
"I've played more than 100 games in Ligue 1 so I would prefer to go abroad. I want to discover something new and playing abroad is a conscious decision."
One of the major factors in Hazard’s next club will be Lille’s asking price of around £30m for one of the hottest prospects in European football. Only a handful of clubs can afford to pay such a sum and the French title holders are believed to be willing to let Hazard hold talks with interested clubs over the next six months.
Tottenham have emerged as surprise contenders for Hazard’s signature and he has been personally scouted by manager Harry Redknapp on at least four occasions since the start of last year. Spurs are currently third in the Premier League, ahead of Chelsea and Arsenal, and are making plans to improve the squad for a title push should they finish in the top four this season.
But the north London club are unlikely to be able to find a move for Hazard unless star winger Gareth Bale is sold in the summer, with Barcelona and Real Madrid both ready to ramp up their interest.
Manchester City are monitoring Hazard’s situation but are mindful that they have David Silva, Samir Nasri and Adam Johnson who play in a similar role while they face a battle to comply with Uefa’s financial fair play rules.
Arsenal have been continually been linked with a move for Hazard since he emerged as a regular for Lille, who he joined as a youth team player at the age of 14.
Wenger spoke glowingly of his admiration for Hazard in an interview with the Belgian press earlier this week and suggested he is ready to enter the running to sign the player.
"I like him a lot, for many reasons," the Arsenal boss told la Dernière Heure. "He has creative power, an ability to misalign opponents, his skill to make the final pass make him a player to covet.
"Hazard is a player who has a profile to play at a high level club, and Arsenal are a high level club."
Hazard, who can play either wide or centrally behind the frontline, has played made 21 appearances in Ligue 1 this season, scoring eight goals and providing nine assists.