Belgian sensation Eden Hazard has been driving opponents to distraction on a weekly basis in France this season. Here's why Arsène Wenger has to ensure the 'right-footed' Messi ends up at Arsenal rather than Liverpool, Manchester United Or Manchester City...
It was a bitterly cold night in northern France but there was a festival atmosphere inside the Stade Lille Métropole. The home side were beating Nancy 3-0 thanks to another devastating performance from Eden Hazard and were about to surge four points clear at the top of the standings.
The brilliant young Belgian had scored one goal, had a hand in the other two, and was in no mood to let up. Every time he got the ball the Lille winger would toy with his opponent, showing him the outside with the drop of a shoulder only to jink nimbly back infield. Then, as the defender recovered his position, Hazard would dodge him again with a sly drag-back. Twice Nancy’s right-back Mickaël Chrétien swung at fresh air after Hazard had teased him with a flurry of stepovers before darting past, prompting cries of ‘Olé!’ from the stands.
The 20-year-old’s impersonation of a matador was mightily impressive, but Nancy were not enjoying having the experience. It had become humiliating and in the 74th minute André Luiz cracked, kicking out at the back of Hazard’s leg and getting himself sent off.
Hazard is exactly the kind of player Wenger loves: beautifully balanced, quick and technical
Nancy’s tormentor also withdrew, limping off injured, and was later subjected to a verbal attack from Luiz. “I wanted to teach him a lesson,” the Brazilian said. “He’d been taking the p**s by going past players then waiting for them to get back so he could do it again. Even his team-mates thought he’d gone too far.”
Hazard is currently the best player in France. When in the mood, he is virtually unplayable. Yet his showboating against Nancy two weeks ago showed a lack of tact and suggested he still has lessons to learn. Humility is not the Belgian’s greatest quality.
That Hazard thinks highly of himself is totally understandable. He has been drawing gushing praise from observers ever since he began starring for Lille’s junior teams aged 14. The youngest player ever to be awarded a professional contract in France, Hazard was soon being likened to Belgium legend Enzo Scifo after making his international debut at 17.
The comparisons have kept on flowing. Ex-Marseille coach Rolland Courbis calls him “a right-footed Lionel Messi” while Christophe Dugarry sees more Cristiano Ronaldo in the precocious forward. Rarely one for conforming, Hazard told the Téléfoot last weekend that Andres Iniesta is the player he feels he resembles most.
No matter. Messi, Ronaldo or Iniesta, one man taken by Hazard’s talent is Arsène Wenger, who, speaking on the same French television show, was unusually open in expressing his admiration. “We’ve followed him for a long time but I don’t want to destabilise Lille,” the Arsenal coach said with a glint in his eye. “Let’s see what happens when he’s transferable.”
Arsenal fans might prefer to hear Wenger wax lyrical about a centre-back or goalkeeper right now. Yet Hazard is exactly the kind of player Wenger loves: beautifully balanced, quick and technical. Despite being of similar stature, Hazard would offer something different to the likes of Samir Nasri, Tomas Rosicky and Andriy Arshavin.
Zinedine Zidane, who now works as an advisor to Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, said he would sign the Belgian “with my eyes closed”
Like Arshavin or Nasri, he operates mainly on the left despite being right-footed. But the Lille forward is more athletic than the Russian and more direct than the Frenchman. He does everything at breakneck speed and, crucially, there is nearly always an end product to his game. “The difference between Hazard and other skilful players is that Eden knows exactly when to dribble and when to pass,” said the Lorient coach Christian Gourcuff. “He always makes the right decision. And once he’s beaten a player, he produces something.”
Arsenal would of course face stiff competition for Hazard’s signature. Zinedine Zidane, who now works as an advisor to Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, said he would sign the Belgian “with my eyes closed”, while Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Chelsea are also keen.
Lille would be reluctant sellers too. The Ligue 1 leaders boast an outstanding team right now and want their best players on board when they move into their new 50,000 stadium next year. Hazard’s advisors also regard ambitious Lille as an ideal club for their prodigy for the time being, recently convincing him to extend his contract until 2014. Perhaps they feel he still lacks the maturity required to flourish at a leading European club.
Cockiness can be an attribute for a forward but Hazard’s display against Nancy was just the latest example of him getting carried away, and question marks remain over his attitude.
Last season, Belgium coach George Leekens dropped Hazard from his squad, publicly questioning his commitment to the national team – an attack that angered Lille’s protective coach Rudi Garcia.
Yet even Garcia felt the need to take disciplinary action back in August when France’s Young Player of the Year for the last two years started arriving late for training on a regular basis and refused to put in the required effort. “I took Eden to one side and told him I wasn’t going to give him an inch this season,” Garcia said. “No one gets favourable treatment here.”
Garcia’s little pep talk did the trick. After a poor start to the season, Hazard has been in the form of his life for the last four months and is now on course to scoop France’s senior Player of Year award. He says the becoming a father in December has given him the maturity and sense of perspective he was lacking. If that’s the case, the world of football had better watch out.
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