With the Liverpool striker set to join Barcelona, is Chelsea's Belgian winger capable of taking up the mantle to become the poster-boy of England's top division?COMMENT
By Richard Jolly
Wanted: a poster-boy for the most popular division in the world. It is a strange situation, where the Premier League has rarely been more glamorous yet its pin-ups keep abdicating their prestigious position. When Gareth Bale decamped for Real Madrid, Luis Suarez slotted seamlessly into his shoes, scoring glorious goals, destroying defenders and waltzing off with the Footballer of the Year awards.
Now Suarez is following the well-trodden path to Spain. Now there is a vacancy. In theory, there are candidates aplenty. Steven Gerrard was gaining support as a contender to Suarez for the end-of-season honours before a certain slip. Yaya Toure scored a career-best 24 goals last year. Robin van Persie, whose finest form tends to come for managers he respects, may well return to his stellar peak when Louis van Gaal takes over at Manchester United.
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Which brings us to Chelsea. In Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas they have two stellar additions but the Stamford Bridge galactico is Eden Hazard. He finished second to the Barcelona-bound Suarez in the PFA Player of the Year voting. The king is dead, long live the king?
It is the logical path of succession. Earlier this year Jose Mourinho said, while arguing that the "monsters" Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are on a different planet to everyone else, that the Belgian ranks first among his generation.
"He is special," the managerial Special One said. "I don't want to compare him with the monsters because the monsters have 10 years of their careers, winning trophies, scoring goals; I think it's not fair for the monsters and it's not fair for the kid to make that comparison but I don't see a better young player. I think in this moment he's the best young player in the world."
At 23, Hazard, unlike the Premier League's more seasoned superstars, ought to improve. He has had two years to adjust to the physicality of English football and a season to get used to the defensive demands that Mourinho places upon his flair players. He should be playing in a more powerful team, too, with the presence of Costa offering the promise that his creativity will result in more assists.
And yet there are reasons to doubt his chances. Hazard has had a reasonable, not remarkable, World Cup. He has supplied two winners, for Dries Mertens against Algeria and Divock Origi versus Russia, with well-placed passes but Kevin De Bruyne, rather than Hazard, was the driving force and Romelu Lukaku, not his Chelsea colleague, was the difference-maker in the last-16 victory against United States.
It is not a case of finding fault, more that, by the very highest standards, by the levels that Messi, Neymar, James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben have reached, he has fallen a little short. It is a reminder that the truest test of the dominant players is whether or not they deliver in the major matches. Hazard excelled, and scored, in Chelsea's December win over Liverpool. He struck in the Uefa Super Cup final against Bayern Munich and converted a pressure penalty against Paris Saint-Germain.
He has shown enough glimpses of his talent to be twice shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award. Yet he has not stamped his authority in such games, or a campaign, in the way Van Persie did on United's 2012-13 season. It is something that past poster-boys, whether Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona or Alan Shearer, did.
They gravitated from the very good to the great. That is the challenge for Hazard. Wearing Chelsea's No.10 shirt, in probably the strongest side in the country, managed by Mourinho, he has the chance to join them in an exclusive club. He will face plenty of competition for the title of the Premier League's shining light but Hazard is the favourite to inherit Suarez's mantle.