Didier Drogba left Manuel Neuer's net rippling and Chelsea supporters in raptures. More than a month later the high hadn't quite worn off. The club's future had been riding on that match. Had they lost, the Blues would have paid the price for a disappointing domestic campaign. They'd have been cut off from from the Champions League for at least a season, starved of the money and prestige required to attract the game's top talent. That penalty kick turned what could have been a lost year into the stuff of legend.
The perks of holding the European Cup — beyond immediate, delirious joy, that is — were at their most apparent on May 28th. What "I'm signing for the champion's league winner" lacked in diction, it more than made up for in impact. Then-21-year-old Eden Hazard, coveted by every team who could even dream of affording him, was Drogba's final gift to Chelsea.
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He had always been precocious. Growing up in Braine-le-Comte, Belgium, Hazard was lucky enough to live within meters of Avenue du Stade, his local club's home ground, and at an early age he developed the habit of hopping the fence that separated his parents' home from the pitch, ball in hand, honing his already considerable natural talent through hours of illicit work.
Hazard wasn't supposed to be on that pitch. Nobody was, between games. But when he was finally caught, when Royal Stade Brainois general manager Pascal Delmoitiez strode the length of the field, intending to forcibly evict the youngster from the newly-reseeded surface, there was no punishment. Delmoitiez was struck by this bare-footed child, guiding penalty after penalty into the top corner when most boys his age would barely be able to get a shot to the goal.
When he popped over to Thierry and Carine Hazard's house (Hazard had run away at some speed upon realising that he'd been busted), he gave a rather different talk to what he might have been anticipating upon first noticing the young trespasser. Would Eden, Delmoitiez asked, be interested in training with the Stade Brainois juniors?
Everything came naturally for Hazard. He knew how to do it all, his natural gifts providing him with so much ability that he was essentially uncoachable. Stade Brainois, a fifth-division Belgian side didn't have the resources to significantly improve him beyond simply letting him play as much football as he could. Hard work combined with prodigious talent — the incredible acceleration that flummoxes the likes of Pablo Zabaleta even today was already on display — left Hazard simply too good for his opponents. He'd swiftly move on to better things.
Five years in white were followed by another half-decade in the red and yellow of second-tier Tubize before Hazard made the move to France. Lille, right against the Belgian border and well known for youth development, was the perfect move for the teenager, and he signed his first professional after two seasons with their youth academy. Within months, he'd made his debut, coming on a substitute during the late stages of a Ligue 1 match against Nancy.
Hazard didn't stick with the senior side during the 2007/08 season, but he was too good to keep out of Rudi Garcia's plans for long. On September 20th, 2008, he became Lille's youngest ever goalscorer, sparking a comeback against Auxerre with an 88th-minute goal, and within months he'd received his first cap for Belgium.
Lille were by now in the ascendency, and Hazard was their shining star. By the time he was 18, he was already one of the top players in France; at 19 he'd scored a match-winner against Liverpool in Europe; at 20 he was the devastating force behind the Ligue 1 champions and drawing serious attention from the continent's big guns. Zinedine Zidane personally recommended him to Real Madrid, Arsene Wenger wanted him at the Emirates and there was continual talk that Chelsea were hoping to bring him to Stamford Bridge.
The ensuing transfer saga was both grueling and more than a little ridiculous. Hazard, by then 21, publicly courted several teams over the course of the 2011/12 season, confirming that he was leaving Lille for the Premier League in the summer but refusing to reveal which team he was joining until the end of May. The public flirtation with a slew of top clubs left a bad taste in many mouths, but any Chelsea supporter with doubts about their new signing would have been quickly mollified by his fast start to life in English football.
In his first three Premier League games, Hazard contributed to six goals. Chelsea began the season against Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium, and within the first two minutes the 21-year-old made quite the impression, leaving Ivan Ramis for dead in the centre circle before releasing Branislav Ivanovic with a killer pass for his first Chelsea assist.
There were more to come. Installed as part of a fluid attacking trident alongside Juan Mata and Oscar, Hazard was producing some incredible moments. At his best, he was unplayable, with goals against West Ham and Sparta Prague showing off his uncanny strength, delicate touch and lightning-fast acceleration. The opposition would regularly resort to double-teaming the Belgian, and when he was having a good day two defenders was nowhere near enough to stop him.
Down 2-0 in an FA Cup quarterfinal at Old Trafford? No problem. Just throw on Hazard and all of your problems will go away. The Belgian sparked a fairly epic comeback with an absolutely sublime finish, turning possession at the edge of the box into a beautiful curler that helped Chelsea come back to secure a 2-2 draw. They'd eventually win the replay and advance to the semifinal.
Technique, speed, movement, finishing. Pick this one out. Hazard's best game of his debut season came at home against West Ham United, and this goal, hit on the run after some brilliant control left Winston Reid in the dust, capped it all off. A masterpiece.
Chelsea's only real achievement in the 2012/13 season was winning the Europa League, but it's easy to forget how close we were to going into extra time against Sparta Prague in the first knockout round. Down 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in the dying minutes, Hazard decided he didn't want to leave anything to chance, running through what seemed like the whole visiting defence to lash home the winner from a ridiculous angle.
Eden Hazard's first Chelsea hattrick was capped off with a simple penalty (poor Tim Krul gets the eyes something fierce in this one), but it's the first two goals that really make it special. The first is a snapshot from a cross inspired by a ridiculous turn in the centre, and the second is a deft finish to cap off a flowing team move. Yes, we're counting all three at once.
'Weaker left foot'? I don't think so. Hazard's penchant for the spectacular came out during Chelsea's 4-0 rout of Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium in January 2013. Hazard received a simple pass from Juan mata, strode into space, and unleashed a vicious, curling effort that probably still haunts Asmir Begovic's nightmares.
But despite Hazard's obvious genius, there was a nagging doubt about his first season with the Blues. Thirteen goals and a 20 assists was an incredible return, of course, but considering his ridiculous ability, it wasn't unreasonable to hope for much more. There was a months-long spell when the Belgian wasn't at his best; just when he found his form again he received a suspension for the now-infamous ballboy incident during the League Cup semifinal loss against Swansea. Hazard's lack of consistency meant that, despite his world-class talent, he was clearly second-fiddle in the Chelsea attack.
That sentiment would have been familiar to supporters of the Belgian national team. For years, Hazard had failed to live up to expectations with the Red Devils, often finding himself benched in favour of obviously-inferior competition. There was a sense that he wasn't making the most of his ability even when he did play and that he wasn't taking his football seriously enough either. That image had been solidified in 2011, when the substituted Hazard was caught eating a hamburger outside the ground while the match he'd just been playing in was ongoing. Hazard was suspended for three games by a furious Georges Leekens, but only served one match of his ban before being reinstated.
For Belgium, it's not enough for Hazard to be a very good player with flashes of otherworldly ability. And the national team found an ally in Jose Mourinho, whose first pronouncement on his 22-year-old star demanded that he cut the inconsistency out of his game:
I want more responsibility and more ambition. When you are a normal player you have to be happy if you perform okay, when you have actions during the game that show quality. But when you are a top talent you can’t waste that talent, when somebody gives you that talent.
I think at this talent level he is somebody very above us. I want to give him that responsibility and ambition for the kid to be better and better and to express himself on the pitch match after match. Don’t be up and down but to always be at the top of his game because he has the conditions to be a top player. This is what I want — whether I can get it I don’t know but he is working very, very hard. I’m very happy with the kid.
Mourinho's tutelage focused first on Hazard's defensive responsibilities, long a sore spot with his coaches. Within weeks, Hazard turned himself into a dual threat, capable of pressing anywhere on the pitch before transitioning seamlessly to attack when Chelsea won back the ball.
Despite the vast improvement on the defensive side of his game, Hazard was still struggling to make the attacking impact his talent demanded. He'd spent the 2012/13 season being overshadowed by Mata, now the same was happening again with Oscar in the Spaniard's place. Hazard was doing well enough — he had six goals by December — but he hadn't heeded Mourinho's advice. His sublime talent was still largely untapped, and he even managed to get himself in disciplinary trouble after losing his passport and ending up late to training as a result.
Then, on a cold night in Wearside, everything fell into place.
The December 4th match against Sunderland saw perhaps the finest individual performance from a Chelsea player in the past two years. Hazard was instrumental in the 4-3 victory, contributing a magnificent assist for the Blues' first goal before notching an astonishing double. His goals were incredible, combining his mesmerising technical skills with lethal finishing, and the Black Cats simply had no answer for him. He looked utterly lethal whenever he had that ball, prolonging his famed 'moments of magic' into a 90-minute spell of utter dominance.
Two weeks later, during the League Cup quarterfinal loss, Sunderland supporters were still treating Hazard as a sort of personal bogeyman. His appearance from the substitute's bench saw an appalled hush fall over the Stadium Of Light, drawing the same sort of trepidation normally reserved for Drogba at the Emirates. Eden Hazard had arrived.
Since the beginning of December — that's nearly three months now — Hazard has been a new player. There's no longer any doubt which Hazard will turn up in games, and he's progressed to the point that he's clearly the club's number one attacking weapon. His emergence as a truly world-class force has coincided with a run that's taken Chelsea to the top of the Premier League table, and since Sunderland he's scored against Swansea, Liverpool and Hull as well as notching an impressive hattrick against Newcastle.
This is no mere purple patch. After his extraordinary display against Manchester City, which helped inspire Chelsea to a 1-0 win against a side which had, until then, been unstoppable at home, the manager hailed his charge as the best young player in the world, comparing his potential to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
It's never been ludicrous to put Hazard in that category, of course, but he's far closer now to realising his potential than he was even six months ago. As Mourinho would say, every elite footballer has to make the jump from 'great talent' to 'great player' at some point in their careers — and right now Hazard's trajectory is taking him to the stars.