Even in a year defined by disappointment, Hazard has risen above the bad news angle to shine.
At club level, Chelsea’s decline under Antonio Conte has left Hazard outside the Champions League looking in, but he still scored the winner in the FA Cup final and was his club’s top scorer and top assist provider in all competitions.
If Chelsea will not look back on 2018 with any great fondness, Hazard is the exception to the general rule. They cycle between highs and lows on an annual basis and change managers every two years, but each new coach is fortunate to inherit such a wonderful talent.
At international level, Belgium missed out on a place in the World Cup final thanks to defeat against France, but Hazard made FIFA's semi-official team of the tournament and was named the second-best player in Russia after Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric. He finished eighth in the 2018 Ballon d’Or list, receiving more than four times as many votes as fellow Premier League players Kevin De Bruyne, Harry Kane and N’Golo Kante. If that’s a disappointing year…
There are few players more crucial to their club’s fortunes than Hazard. He has been revitalised under Maurizio Sarri, with the Italian demanding that he remain high up the pitch rather than being encumbered by defensive responsibilities. “We’ve spoken and I told him he can score 40 goals,” Sarri revealed in September. “He has to improve some things, but he can do it.”
Lofty – frankly, unrealistic – expectations, but it has led to Hazard taking more shots and more touches in the opposition penalty area. That has been good for Chelsea as a whole.
A fruitful partnership has been forged with Olivier Giroud, even if Sarri occasionally prefers Alvaro Morata. At the time of writing, Hazard has not scored a Chelsea goal with Morata on the pitch since February 2018.
Hazard has been weighed down by unhelpful comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, against whom he undoubtedly falls short. The accusation is that he lacks the ambition and drive to join their plane. But then Messi and Ronaldo are two of the greatest to have ever played the game, and have played for clubs who regularly dominate at home and abroad.
Not matching their output is hardly an appropriate stick with which to beat any player, and there’s little doubt that Hazard has been let down by the flaws of his club. The question still remains whether a move to Real Madrid would take the Belgian to an ever higher level.
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