Time for Eden Hazard to produce his best on the big occasion
Chelsea’s hopes of upsetting Barcelona rest largely on the skilful Belgian international
Eden Hazard: The Chelsea star turned 27 last month and is approaching his prime but time is running out for him to claim football’s the biggest prizes. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP
This week a clip emerged of three Barcelona players being confronted by a metal railing, with each of them choosing to deal with the obstacle in a different way.
While Jordi Alba continued to mooch along the suggested route and Luis Suarez dealt with the inconvenience by jumping over it, Lionel Messi could be seen scurrying under the barrier, like a small child setting off on an adventure at passport control, weaving through the legs and dividing lines and leaving his parents in a state of bewildered panic.
Obviously there was nothing unique about this little episode. Many of us have had to make these kind of tough choices. But this was not just anyone ducking under an inanimate object. It was the world’s best footballer saving himself a few seconds by crouching down as though he was dodging a burly defender and setting off on one of his slaloming dribbles, finding space where there appeared to be none.
This is, of course, a mild exaggeration. Such is the power of Messi’s aura, though. The eyes are inevitably drawn to him, even in a short segment featuring two other prominent characters, and it is easy to imagine him scuttling in similar fashion when Barcelona visit Chelsea on Tuesday night, with Gary Cahill cast in the role of metal railing, bent over and peering through his legs, helpless to stop the Argentinian scooting away to complete his hat-trick.
But while there are fatalistic ways to frame the tie from the perspective of the Premier League champions, to focus on Tiemoue Bakayoko’s impression of a man trying to drive a Formula One car while wearing flippers, they know better than anyone that greatness is not always required in Europe.
It has been almost six years since Chelsea triumphed by earning a draw in the second leg at the Camp Nou. Messi, who has never scored against the west London side, wept in the dressing room after missing a penalty on that absurd April evening. Somewhere lurking in Chelsea’s muscle memory is the perverse defiance that could see them annoy Barcelona again.
Admittedly it seems an unlikely prospect. There was a time when a Chelsea red card was the cue for Jose Bosingwa to transform into Franco Baresi; two weeks ago they had a man sent off against Watford and conceded three times in six minutes.
Yet throughout that collapse at Vicarage Road one player kept going, pressing and probing and trying to find a way through the gaps.
Eventually Eden Hazard conjured an equaliser, whipping in a superb shot from 25 yards, and while Chelsea went on to lose 4-1, that one moment was a reminder that the Belgian has done his utmost to lift the unease. He was at it again in Monday’s 3-0 win over West Brom, linking with Olivier Giroud to score the opener before grabbing his 15th goal of the season with another solo effort.
In a team lacking obvious elite expertise Hazard often has to make the difference on his own. With the honourable exception of Cesc Fabregas, the creative burden falls largely on the Belgian’s shoulders and Chelsea will depend on his potent verve and skill against La Liga’s dominant force.
This feels like a defining moment for Hazard, who should have extra motivation after seeing Liverpool’s attacking triumvirate shred Porto, Manchester City cruise past Basel and Dele Alli, Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane stand out in Tottenham’s fightback against Juventus.
Although he has helped Chelsea to two league titles and has become more driven and effective under Antonio Conte, he has shrunk on these big occasions in the past.
He was substituted for Nacer Chadli when Belgium lost to Messi’s Argentina in the last World Cup and his record in the Champions League knockout stages does not amount to much. He has tucked away a couple of penalties against Paris Saint Germain but he could not stop Chelsea from going out to the French side in the last 16 in 2015 and 2016. His impact in the semi-final defeat by Atletico Madrid in 2014 was minimal.
Those missed opportunities lend weight to the idea that Hazard is a rung down from the highest level. Maybe it explains why there are reports that Cristiano Ronaldo is not keen on him at Real Madrid, who are said to be readying themselves to sign Neymar this summer.
Yet if Hazard does not take the next step on the journey to greatness now, it might never happen. He turned 27 last month. He is approaching his prime and time is running out for him to claim the biggest prizes. He might look at Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona and feel a pang of jealousy given the Brazilian rarely outshone him in England. Alternatively he might wonder if PSG will turn to him if they sell Neymar.
Whether Hazard can alter the narrative surrounding him in big games by staying at an increasingly thrifty Chelsea remains to be seen. There is little hard evidence he is desperate for a move and Roman Abramovich has never been muscled into selling one of his stars.
While Barcelona have options, Conte is glaring at Ross Barkley. Hazard could change the mood by summoning individual inspiration to rival Kaka’s effect on an ordinary Milan side 11 years ago, when they won the European Cup. But when he sees Messi wriggling through the bodies, he could be forgiven for getting itchy feet.