By Liam Twomey
When the PFA Player of the Year is announced at Grosvenor House on April 27, it would be a monumental surprise if Luis Suarez is not the man to hear his name read out.
Having bounced back from a succession of controversies which threatened to drive him out of the Premier League in disgrace to enjoy a sensational scoring season and lead Liverpool to the brink of a first title in 24 years, the Uruguayan would undoubtedly be a worthy winner.
But he would not be the only one. Yaya Toure has built upon his reputation as a fearsome midfield powerhouse to emerge as an awesome, match-winning force of nature. Steven Gerrard's reinvention at the base of a thrilling Liverpool midfield carries with it the romance of a fairytale. Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana have both come of age on England's grandest footballing stage, while only injuries have prevented Sergio Aguero from mounting a serious challenge.
|BEWARE THE HAZARD
|HAZARD PL STATS 2013-14
MINUTES ON THE PITCH
The surreal sale of Juan Mata to Manchester United in January emphatically hammered home Jose Mourinho's desire to build his attacking unit around the creative talents of Hazard and Oscar. By then both had already been shouldering the burden of invention for the best part of five months and, following a 70-game season and busy summer at the Confederations Cup, the jaded Brazilian's influence was beginning to wane.
Throughout the defining months of the season it is Hazard who has carried Chelsea's attacking hopes almost entirely on his low-slung but deceptively broad shoulders, and Mourinho's greatest achievement since returning to Stamford Bridge last summer is to have successfully elevated the classy Belgian's game to a new level of consistency and effectiveness.
"I want more responsibility and more ambition," the Portuguese challenged his gifted winger in August. "When you are a top talent you can't waste that talent, when somebody gives you that talent. I think at this talent level he is somebody very above us.
"I want to give him that responsibility and ambition for the kid to be better and better and to express himself on the pitch match after match. Don't be up and down but to always be at the top of his game because he has the conditions to be a top player."
Hazard has unarguably risen to the challenge of being Chelsea's star man. His tally of 14 goals - five better than his debut season in England - makes him the club's top scorer in the Premier League. In 33 appearances he has created more chances (87) than any other player in the division, having created just 65 in 34 games last season.
If his team did not boast the most underwhelming collection of strikers in any of Europe's major clubs, there is little doubt he would have registered many more than seven assists too. No other player in the Chelsea squad has reached double figures for Premier League goals.
And therein lies Hazard's problem. No other Player of the Year contender has had to assume such individual responsibility for his team's fortunes in the final third. A division-high total of 122 completed dribbles - he is the only player to have broken 100 - is as much an indictment of his team-mates as it is testament to the Belgian's exceptional technical ability.
In any case, to judge Hazard's ability on raw numbers is to miss the point. It takes more than a glance at the graphs and heatmaps to truly appreciate the beauty that Chelsea's No.17 brings to a football match.
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Hazard's individual masterclass in Chelsea's 1-0 evisceration of City at the Etihad Stadium in February prompted Mourinho to label him "the best young player in the world". There were no goals or assists for the 23-year-old but Dutch publication Voetbal International did not care. "Hazard has something magical: pure football," they gushed.
He is a footballer that other footballers fear, respect and desire to emulate. When Goal asked Crystal Palace winger Jason Puncheon to name his hardest opponent last month there was no hesitation. "I’d have to say Eden Hazard," he admitted. "He’s just so unpredictable. He’s got everything - a great talent and a joy to watch."
Prior to Chelsea's Champions League round-of-16 clash with Galatasaray, returning hero Didier Drogba told L'Equipe: "Everyone talks about Messi and Ronaldo but in Hazard, Chelsea has both those players in one."
In truth though, the Belgian remains more artist than machine, without the phenomenal numbers to trouble the monsters of this generation and closer in style to his idol Zinedine Zidane, the France legend who saw him play as a teenager for Lille in 2010 and famously remarked: "I would take him to Real Madrid with my eyes closed."
Few artists receive a fitting level of recognition while they are at their best, and the combination of frightening efficiency and a likely title win makes Suarez an overwhelming favourite to claim all the PFA votes he needs this year. But if Roman Abramovich opens his chequebook to bring a striker worthy of Hazard to Stamford Bridge this summer, the Belgian's time may yet come before long.
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