Eden Hazard said this week that he believed the FA Cup Final would not be his last game for Chelsea. Admittedly, he delivered that statement with a caveat, that he wanted the club to show ambition in the summer transfer market and deliver new team-mates that could help win the Premier League title.
Chelsea have grown rich and powerful enough to consider the FA Cup a minor honour – albeit a welcome one – and their season objectives do not necessarily begin with the intent of winning it. They set their sights higher than that at the outset of every campaign; for the league title and the Champions League.
On those two fronts it’s been a washout for Antonio Conte and so the deposed Premier League kings must content themselves with this trophy instead.
It’s well known that their Belgian playmaker’s contract expires two years from now and at 27 years old he will have more on his mind than domestic cups. Chelsea have got to fill this squad with players capable of matching his standards. There have been too many transfer mis-steps this season; even Conte knows that and has made his dissatisfaction abundantly clear.
That Chelsea went out and signed players like Davide Zappacosta, Ross Barkley and Danny Drinkwater when they had a title to defend was negligent. It did not send the message that the club wanted to improve. They were plugging gaps for the players that left at best. And they have been punished for that in their league position and their elimination from Europe.
Too many players had too many off-days all season long and not even Hazard can be excluded from that. There was a spell of form in the early part of 2018 where even the player himself admitted he was beneath his best. There appeared to be a touch of testiness in his relationship with the manager, who took to playing him through the centre of the attack and demanding more running for the team.
Still he remains Chelsea’s top scorer this season – with 17 goals. And he was Chelsea’s only potent threat at Wembley. He caused trouble in the Manchester United ranks even before the game kicked off.
His former manager Jose Mourinho is zealous in the man-making department when it comes to Hazard and deployed Ander Herrera in that role again. It gave the game a lopsided feel as Hazard sought space, Herrera followed him and the entire match seemed to tilt in that direction.
With Cesc Fabregas in the line-up alongside two more central midfielders it meant that Hazard was playing off Olivier Giroud rather than to one side of him. And it was from the right side of the Chelsea attack that he found the breakthrough.
His velvet touch in front of Phil Jones bought about five yards of space and as he bore down on goal it was inevitable that Chelsea were going one-up – either by the boot of Hazard or through a penalty because Jones was itching to take him out. The latter prevailed and Hazard made no mistake from the spot. His penalty technique remains impeccable.
In truth Hazard was a class above on his 300th Chelsea appearance. He injected pace and ball-carrying ability towards the United goal; no one in red could come close to making the same kind of attacking impact. He played around 80 per cent of his passes in the United half and drew more fouls than anyone else in Chelsea blue. As Giroud toiled it was Hazard taking the fight to United.
It was a game in which he stood and delivered. He talked the talk earlier in the week and today he walked the walk. Chelsea now have got to see that it’ll take more players closer to Hazard’s quality to put them back in contention for the two trophies they crave most.