Chelsea winger Eden Hazard opens up ahead of Real Madrid move and Europa League final against Arsenal as he vows never to play for another English club. admitting he has grown up during his time at the club.
On Wednesday evening in Baku against Arsenal, Hazard will likely play for the final time in a Chelsea shirt. Chelsea will miss him and, in truth, we all will.
Here is a player who has been in the PFA Team of the Year four times and twice led his side to the Premier League title. When the mood takes Hazard, he is utterly devastating.
The shimmies, the low centre of gravity, the Velcro close control, the zig-zag slaloms and the clinical finishes have become staples of the Premier League. Quite simply, the best of Hazard is the best of any player in Europe.
Little wonder, therefore, that Real Madrid has prioritised his signature and, now 28, Hazard feels the move is essential. Chelsea will strike a hard bargain but, ultimately, expect their most gifted player to depart.
He is not prepared to sign fresh terms at Stamford Bridge and the club cannot turn down figures approaching £100million for a player who would leave for nothing in 12 months’ time. In such circumstances, many players would shun questions. To his credit, Hazard takes his job seriously but does not take himself too seriously.
In a curious quirk, Dortmund has signed Hazard’s brother Thorgan as a replacement for Chelsea’s new addition, Christian Pulisic. Is it fair, therefore, to suggest that Pulisic is the man replacing Hazard at Chelsea?
‘That’s possible,’ Hazard nods. ‘We will see. It’s in the hands of the clubs. But there’s a lovely match to play. It’s not in my head right now: I stay, I go…‘
There is, however, a warning. Should Chelsea compel Hazard to stay and see out his contract, will he show patience?
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘That’s a difficult one to answer. A year is long, no?’
In Baku, Hazard is concentrating on his Chelsea legacy. His last kick at Stamford Bridge may turn out to be the winning penalty in the Europa League semi-final victory over Eintracht Frankfurt and his final game may end in silverware. The perfect farewell?
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I just want to win the trophy. It does not matter if I score or not.
‘Of course I can put aside (the speculation). How long do you know me now? You know how I am. I stay in that mode: thinking about football. After the final we see what happens.’
As Hazard weaves away from the future, nostalgia takes him down memory lane.
‘When I came here I was a baby,’ he says. ‘Now I am a big man. As a person, I didn’t change. As a player, I score more goals and I have more experience. But I try to be the same as when I start.’
It is seven years since Hazard signed for Chelsea in a £32m transfer from Lille. He was then just 21 but he recalls clearly the stomping of Premier League feet as the top clubs vying for his talents.
Wednesday’s opponents Arsenal made a move and Arsene Wenger even hosted Hazard’s agent at his family home. ‘Yes, they were talking together,’ Hazard says.
‘But not like with Chelsea. I had a chance to sign for Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, but I think I made the right decision.
‘I spoke with the owner, with (then Chelsea boss) Roberto Di Matteo. I had Didier Drogba on the phone and Joe Cole (Hazard’s team-mate at Lille) told me it was the best club.
‘I was a bit scared as when I came, Didier left and when you have Didier in the team, for sure you win a trophy.
‘But at the end I played with top players. And if you look at my seven years at Chelsea we did something amazing together. We won trophies.’
Hazard has played under six Chelsea managers, from Di Matteo to Maurizio Sarri. His most successful, but also his most fractious, periods came under Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho. When Mourinho left amid dreadful form, Hazard sent him an apologetic message.
Reflecting now, he considers his first title under the Portuguese, in 2015, his happiest period at Chelsea.
‘The way I was playing for me was the best,’ he says. ‘I was more consistent. I look at the statistics as you, the media, ask me all the time.
‘When we watch the TV it says: “Eden Hazard scored this…” but I don’t really care. I just want to enjoy myself on the pitch.
‘The best example is with Belgium. I played my best game against Brazil at the World Cup (last year) and I didn’t score or assist. That is what I like to do.
‘I don’t think about scoring goals or assists. I just want to do my best.’
For Hazard and Chelsea, this has been a peculiar season. He notes it has been his best season with the Blues for goals and assists, with 19 and 16 respectively.
But he did not score in his final nine appearances and Chelsea’s campaign dramatically derailed at certain moments.
‘For me, a good season is not whether I scored 40 goals. I want to win something at the end of the season. I don’t think it is my best season to be fair.’
Asked to identify why Chelsea finished 26 points behind champions Manchester City, Hazard’s analysis is enlightening.
He suggests Chelsea’s squad lacks the depth of their rivals, which does not bode well with a potential summer transfer ban.
‘I don’t think there is only one problem. When you look at the starting 11 of City they can play with 22 players. When you look at Chelsea I think we can’t play with 22 players.
‘It has been a 50-50 season. Sometimes happy, sometimes not. We finished in the top three, Carabao Cup final and now Europa League. If we win it, the season can be good. Not perfect, because you want to compete for the league and FA Cup.
‘Liverpool and City did not change the manager in the summer, we changed the manager. Sometimes you need time to adapt. But we can reach that level, we have the players and we just need to train together, we play together, lose together.’
While a transfer to Madrid is in the balance, Hazard’s loyalty to Chelsea is unyielding. Would he consider a move to a Premier League club?
‘No chance,’ he says. ‘I am a blue! It means a lot to me. I cannot play for another club in the country.
‘That’s why we have to win the Europa League. Otherwise, everybody will have to hear (from Arsenal): ‘We have won, we have won’. For the fans it’s important. For the players it’s important. For the coach it’s important. We are confident.
‘You feel that there’s something at stake. Our season hasn’t been top-top, but finishing it with a European trophy will be good.’