Hazard a guess at LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs next big signing...
Serendipity is considered one of the top 10 hardest English words to translate, but itÃ¢ÂÂs one thatÃ¢ÂÂs all too familiar to football scouts around the world. The annals of football history are littered with examples of one player being watched, often for the final time before a bid is about to be launched, only for another to dramatically steal the show and eclipse him.
Roy Hodgson witnessed just such a moment on Sunday when he accompanied Liverpool scout Laurent Viaud to France for the second time in as many weeks. The pair were in Villeneuve-d-Ascq ostensibly to run the rule over Gervinho, LilleÃ¢ÂÂs skilful Ivory Coast international striker, with whom they were strongly linked in the summer months.
A product of Jean-Marc GuillouÃ¢ÂÂs famous ASEC Abidjan youth academy, which saw nine of its graduates, including the TourÃÂ© brothers, Salomon Kalou and Emmanuel EbouÃÂ© all start for the Ivory Coast against Portugal at the World Cup in South Africa, Gervinho missed four goalscoring chances and was ultimately substituted by Ludovic Obraniak with 20 minutes remaining.
But it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a wasted journey for Hodgson and Viaud, as they made a fortunate discovery while looking for something else entirely, getting to see one of the finest performances from a player in Europe this season. Eden Hazard was later given a nine in LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe for his match-winning display against Monaco, a rating that is extremely rare and can be put into some perspective by the fact that only five players in history have received full marks from the paperÃ¢ÂÂs ever-so-hard to please band of journalists.
The 19-year-old set up Pierre-Alain Frau for LilleÃ¢ÂÂs opener with a stunning mid-air Cruyff turn of an assist. And when Monaco equalised, it took yet more inspiration from Hazard to restore the home side's lead. Operating from his position on the right flank, the Belgium international played a quick one-two with Tulio De Melo then raced to the byline before pulling the ball back accurately for Obraniak, who slotted home the winner, making Lille the sixth team to top the table in France this season.
Ã¢ÂÂWhen Hazard plays at this level, he is untouchable. His talent is unique in Ligue 1,Ã¢ÂÂ wrote LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe. Frau for one was in no position to disagree with that assessment and soon after the match he revealed to Orange Sport just how much his fellow teammates are in awe of the footballer already twice voted Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year. Ã¢ÂÂEden continues to be mind-blowing,Ã¢ÂÂ the veteran grinned. Ã¢ÂÂSometimes even on the pitch, we say: Wow!Ã¢ÂÂ
Hodgson was giving nothing away. Ã¢ÂÂThere were a lot of good players on the pitch,Ã¢ÂÂ the 63-year-old dourly remarked on his way out of the ground. His peers within the French game found it a little harder to contain their emotions, though. Rolland Courbis, the former Marseille coach and a colourful personality both on and off the pitch, told RMC Sport: Ã¢ÂÂAt times it looks to me like Lionel Messi on the right-hand sideÃ¢ÂÂ¦ I said Ã¢ÂÂat timesÃ¢ÂÂ. HeÃ¢ÂÂll get more consistent with the experience he acquires in the coming years.Ã¢ÂÂ
Of course, itÃ¢ÂÂs inconceivable that Hazard hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been on ViaudÃ¢ÂÂs radar and that of his boss, LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs newly appointed director of football strategy, Damien Comolli, for some considerable time. Tipped as one of the brightest young talents in European football even before making his Ligue 1 debut in 2007 aged just 16, Hazard has always been something of a prodigal talent.
His father Thierry was a former professional footballer in the Belgian second division. But there was no pressure to follow in his footsteps. Ã¢ÂÂWe didnÃ¢ÂÂt direct his education in a football sense,Ã¢ÂÂ Thierry told France Football in March. Ã¢ÂÂHe only started to play football at around four and a half or five-years-old in a club coached by his godfather. One should say that there is a pitch right next to our house! He took to it very quickly and from then onwards it was football, football, football. He broke everything inside and outside the house, trying to reproduce the moves he saw on TV like step overs or Zinedine ZidaneÃ¢ÂÂs roulettes.Ã¢ÂÂ
In April, Zidane told Spanish paper Marca that he considers Hazard to be the Ã¢ÂÂstar of the future,Ã¢ÂÂ adding that: Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂd sign him for Real Madrid with my eyes closed.Ã¢ÂÂ So it would appear that all the time he spent copying ZizouÃ¢ÂÂs roulettes has actually paid off. But Hazard hasnÃ¢ÂÂt let the many compliments go to his head Ã¢ÂÂ far from it in fact - which will certainly be of interest to Comolli who told liverpoolfc.tv on November 15 that heÃ¢ÂÂd had a long conversation with Kenny Dalglish about what it takes to be a Liverpool player, talking more about the Ã¢ÂÂpersonal character [and] personality aspectÃ¢ÂÂ of the players than their talent alone.
Hazard tormented Liverpool in last year's Europa League
Ã¢ÂÂHe isnÃ¢ÂÂt arrogant,Ã¢ÂÂ Marseille legend Franck SauzÃÂ©e highlighted on Orange Sport. tÃ¢ÂÂHe is humble in his comments. He mustnÃ¢ÂÂt change.Ã¢ÂÂ The staff at Lille also offer up a glowing report of the playerÃ¢ÂÂs character. Ã¢ÂÂHe is an extra-terrestrial,Ã¢ÂÂ smiled Anne-Sophie Leuliette, who is responsible for teaching the clubÃ¢ÂÂs youngsters. Ã¢ÂÂHe hasnÃ¢ÂÂt changed a lot since his arrival. He has remained very humble and kind, contrary to the others.Ã¢ÂÂ
HazardÃ¢ÂÂs former mentor Dick Advocaat has raised questions about his apparent lack of charisma. But LilleÃ¢ÂÂs academy director Jean-Michel Vandamme puts that down to Hazard possessing a diligence that is out of the ordinary.
Ã¢ÂÂEden has a great intellectual honesty,Ã¢ÂÂ Vandamme told France Football. Ã¢ÂÂWe sometimes have a row about his progress at the academy. When we saw his parents to talk about it, his mother would ask him: Ã¢ÂÂIs what Monsieur Vandamme says trueÃ¢ÂÂ. He would never look for excuses when he didnÃ¢ÂÂt do well on the pitch. He is a real competitor, not a cheat, nor a moaner, because you donÃ¢ÂÂt hear him complaining when he gets fouled.Ã¢ÂÂ
And yet HazardÃ¢ÂÂs inner resolve has been severely tested this season. Lille coach Rudi Garcia left him on the bench for three matches in a row between September 26 and October 17 after a start to the campaign that was only remarkable for its distinct mediocrity. Ã¢ÂÂIt was to allow him to breathe and to learn that his performances were insufficient,Ã¢ÂÂ Garcia said, explaining his controversial decision.
The player who had drawn comparisons with Enzo Scifo when making his debut for Belgium aged 17 was now on the fringes of the national team. The leading light of a golden generation was left in the stands against Kazakhstan on October 8 and played just 10 minutes as a second half substitute against Austria a few days later.
Ã¢ÂÂI like Eden a lot,Ã¢ÂÂ Belgium manager Georges Leekens said. Ã¢ÂÂBut he must work more. For the moment he is in a haze at Lille where he is often on the bench. ItÃ¢ÂÂs up to him to work physically and mentally. I am not here to hand out gifts. I am here to motivate because Belgium needs a great Eden.Ã¢ÂÂ
Unsurprisingly to Vandamme his pupil has managed to turn it around.
The Belgian has lead Lille to the summit of Ligue 1
After all, Hazard has been directly or indirectly involved in seven of LilleÃ¢ÂÂs last 11 goals. His insatiable run of form over the last month has provided the catalyst to his sideÃ¢ÂÂs season. They had been stuttering despite going unbeaten in their first seven matches in all competitions.
Last yearÃ¢ÂÂs best attack in Ligue 1 - the one that had averaged nearly four goals a game between November 28 2009 and January 17 2010 - was struggling to catch fire. Lille scored just twice in their opening four matches. And when they did find the net four times in one game, it was misleading because it came against beleaguered Lens who were reduced to nine men. Immediately after that result Les Dogues lost to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League and although they bounced back with a 1-0 victory over Auxerre, Moussa Sow readily admitted that his winning goal was offside.
Back-to-back defeats to Lyon and Marseille were all too familiar given LilleÃ¢ÂÂs poor record against FranceÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂbigÃ¢ÂÂ clubs, but a 2-2 draw away to Levski Sofia was the lowest ebb with Garcia calling the performance Ã¢ÂÂcatastrophic.Ã¢ÂÂ He joined the country in questioning the clubÃ¢ÂÂs ambition. Lille needed a spark and it came from Hazard.
On November 7, he helped open the deadlock that was BrestÃ¢ÂÂs defence, a watertight backline that hadnÃ¢ÂÂt been breached in 832 minutes. Then he orchestrated a 5-2 demolition of Caen. SundayÃ¢ÂÂs sublime performance against Monaco, his best of the season so far, came just three days after a 500km trip to Voronezh where he made his comeback for Belgium, contributing to an unexpected 2-0 win signed by Romelu Lukaku. Ã¢ÂÂIn my opinion, he is back again,Ã¢ÂÂ Marc Wilmots said. Ã¢ÂÂHe is a lot better since the electric shock, which made him take a lot of things into consideration.Ã¢ÂÂ
Asked to reveal what has changed, Hazard himself said: Ã¢ÂÂNothing. I keep working at training and I knew that IÃ¢ÂÂd come back.Ã¢ÂÂ And if he can maintain this level of performance for the rest of the season in tandem with the likes of Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye, Moussa Sow and Gervinho, Lille could well make a breakthrough and win Ligue 1 for the first time since 1954. Then it wonÃ¢ÂÂt just be Damien Comolli sending a fax to Lille president Michel Seydoux.
Yet luring Hazard away from Villeneuve-d-Ascq wonÃ¢ÂÂt be easy. He has a contract until June 2014, which protects his value, but also more importantly it underlines his commitment to the club. Ã¢ÂÂEden has told us very interesting things,Ã¢ÂÂ Seydoux explained. Ã¢ÂÂHe wants to see the new ground [which is due to open in 2012] and we wish to see the new ground with Eden Hazard on the pitch.Ã¢ÂÂ Pundits such as Christophe Dugarry also feel that LilleÃ¢ÂÂs presence away from the spotlight is good for his long-term development, citing Hatem Ben ArfaÃ¢ÂÂs experiences at Marseille where the media pressure is immense. Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs not bad for Lille and Hazard to stay a little longer in the shadows,Ã¢ÂÂ he wrote
There is a sense, though, that sooner or later, he will have to move on. Ã¢ÂÂEden is a talent, but he canÃ¢ÂÂt be eternally considered as such,Ã¢ÂÂ Advocaat said last week. Ã¢ÂÂHe must find new motivation. A new club for example.Ã¢ÂÂ Whether that new club is Liverpool remains to be seen.