By Liam Twomey
When Eden Hazard took his frustration out on Charlie Morgan in the closing stages of Chelsea’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg against Swansea last month, he did more than earn a three-match ban and bring the ethics of ball boys everywhere into question.
In some quarters, he also sparked debate as to whether the Premier League’s most expensive summer acquisition has done enough in his debut season to justify the incredible hype which surrounded his £32 million transfer from Lille to Stamford Bridge.
It is a fall the Belgian set himself up for, in truth. The golden boy of Ligue 1 for two seasons running, he revelled in the transfer speculation and even fanned the flames, fluttering his eyelashes seductively at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter and many of the Premier League's elite before announcing slightly cryptically on Twitter that he had chosen Chelsea.
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Yet deliver he did. For the first month of the Premier League season Hazard was sensational, tormenting defenders with pace, skill and direct running, and creating chance after chance for his team-mates. In his first three matches alone he bagged four assists and one goal, as well as winning three penalties.
There were more moments of brilliance to follow before Christmas – a sublime instant pass to set up Juan Mata’s second goal against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, a match-saving cameo against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup – but, as Chelsea faltered and Roberto Di Matteo was replaced by Rafa Benitez, they grew fewer and further between.
For all his talent, Hazard could not prevent the Blues’ campaign drifting way off course. Instead it was Mata who carried the fight as the European champions laboured in vain against Shakhtar and Juventus in defence of their crown, and succumbed to a hungrier, more organised and disciplined Corinthians side in the Club World Cup final.
In 2013, the 22-year-old has not provided the inspiration and influence commonly expected from a marquee signing reportedly earning £170,000-a-week. Nor has he worked hard enough defensively to protect the superb but too often isolated Ashley Cole. On this front, however, Chelsea must shoulder a large portion of the blame.
Roman Abramovich invested in quality rather than quantity last summer, and consequently the squad his managers have had to work with is surprisingly and alarmingly low on numbers. Moreover, the suffocating pressure felt by first Di Matteo and now Benitez to win every game has severely limited the scope for rotation.
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And when the January absences of both Victor Moses and Jon Obi Mikel on Afcon duty with Nigeria are also factored in, a worrying picture emerges. Chelsea’s biggest stars are being run into the ground, and Hazard is one of the main victims.
This time last year he had played 29 games for club and country. This term he has played 43 – only five less than his total for the whole of last season - and there are surely many more to come. Perhaps then, that enforced rest handed down by the Football Association might end up being a good thing.
When tiredness and the atmosphere of constant chaos at Chelsea are taken into consideration, the vital statistics from Hazard’s debut season in the Premier League look fairly impressive. He has six goals and six assists from 23 appearances, as well as winning five converted penalties or free kicks, meaning in reality he has directly created 11 goals for his team – two more than Mata.
There is clearly room for improvement but, at 22, the Belgian has time as well as talent on his side. Mata took a season to assume the talismanic status he now enjoys at Stamford Bridge, while Ramires overcame an indifferent first year in England to become the most reliable performer in a campaign which yielded Champions League and FA Cup success last term.
The great Zinedine Zidane once claimed that if he were president of Real Madrid, he would sign Hazard “with his eyes closed”.
Chelsea fans have so far seen only flashes of such blinding quality, but if the Belgian adds consistency and authority to his vast array of skills, all the hype will be justified.
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