Early in July 2018, Belgium’s golden generation had their heart broken for the umpteenth time when Samuel Umtiti’s header saw them eliminated in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup in Russia. There still was a game to come, but it was difficult to believe that Roberto Martinez’s men could put up a brave face once again and battle it out.
The ever-insignificant third-place match between Belgium and England soon kicked off at Krestovsky Stadium. Leading 1-0 with seven minutes to go, Eden Hazard received the ball from Kevin De Bruyne, nonchalantly skipped past Phil Jones, sent Jordan Pickford the wrong way and slammed it into the near post.
The goal summed up everything about the then-Chelsea star’s campaign. Simple, elegant and filled with confidence. Hazard picked up the silver ball in the World Cup that year and was only behind Luka Modric as the best player in the tournament. Fast forward four years and Hazard barely came off the bench for his national team in Qatar.
Still just 32, age was not the factor that saw his prominence for the Red Devils fall so steeply. Moreover, the fact that not a soul batted their eye over his absence spoke volumes about the forward’s difficult four years.
Hazard was always one to be considered naturally gifted. Since the day he first played for a club at just four years old, onlookers knew they were seeing something special blossom.
In 2005, the player’s hunt for professional training took him to Lille, France. In two years, he had his first contract and made his debut for the first team aged just 16. A special chapter in his career thus began, one in which he would go on to score 36 times in 147 appearances.
It was only in June 2012 that the winger moved to Chelsea, a club in which he would go on to rewrite history. Many call him the most skilful player to have ever donned the blue colours of London, even to this day.
In his seven years at Chelsea, he took the club to the Premier League title twice. Although the UEFA Champions League proved to be a steep challenge, he won the UEFA Europa League twice in addition to two domestic cups.
To this day, the Premier League club’s website describes Hazard as a ‘shining star with special skill, speed and a smile.‘ Yet, there are many in Madrid and across the globe who would argue with every letter of that statement with their all. What brought about such a radical change in stature after all?
A fateful move to Madrid
When Real Madrid come calling, very few players even have the mind to think twice about the offer. Los Blancos‘ call is said to be a train that passes only once, and it would be devastating for any individual to miss out on the opportunity having been presented with it.
At the end of a taxing transfer saga, the Belgian International announced his departure from Chelsea to Real Madrid in the summer of 2019. The move involved a fee of €100 million, one that could increase to €146 million with variables.
The premonitory signs of an unsuccessful transfer were there for the taking from the get-go. Hazard arrived at the Real Madrid training camp unfit, overweight and unsurprisingly sluggish. He forced a strong presence in the media to defend his position, but it was clear that he already could not handle the spotlight.
A lack of fitness delayed his debut for the club by two months. Understandably fazed by his new environment and the novel system, it took the forward close to a month to record his first goal and assist which came against Granada at the Santiago Bernabeu.
From there on began a chain of vicious injuries and setbacks that took the player’s career to the cleaners.
Hazard was at the receiving end of a harsh challenge in Real Madrid’s clash against PSG that ruled him out of action for 15 games. The hairline crack was soon resolved, but he was again forced to spend 76 days on the sidelines for a fissure on his Fibula.
The 2020-21 season for Hazard was perhaps the worst any sportsperson could go through. A combination of muscular setbacks and COVID saw him miss a combined 174 days of action and reduced his presence in the squad to a mere formality.
Two years into his Real Madrid career, the Belgian had taken no quantifiable steps towards establishing himself at the club. And things hardly improved for him in his third season at the club, even as Los Blancos won the La Liga and the Champions League under Carlo Ancelotti.
“These have been three difficult years but next year I will give everything for you guys. I’m sure that next year will be mine, I’ve no doubts,” he said emotionally in an interview after being carried to a UCL without contributing.
Yet, with half the season past him, Hazard has only featured 102 minutes on the field in La Liga.
The most embarrassing development in his Real Madrid chapter, perhaps one that cannot be superseded, came early in February. An out-of-the-blue statement from the club revealed that Hazard suffered from patellar tendinosis in his left knee, all while not participating in the team’s last six games.
It has never been in doubt, but his latest injury forces one to ponder again – Is there really a way back from the mess Hazard is in?
What next for Eden Hazard
“Thank you for your love and support, a page turns today”, a clearly moved Hazard said while announcing his international retirement after Belgium’s disastrous FIFA World Cup campaign.
Over four years after winning the silver ball award in his prime, the Real Madrid ace had dropped one of the worst campaigns in a red shirt and was clearly not very happy about it.
Truth be told, many saw the move coming from afar. As harsh as it may sound, it may not be long before the world hears him face the press once more, this time announcing quits from the sport.
Football is a game of mental fortitude as much as it is of physical nuance. Hazard has lived his days as the best, amongst the best and against the best in England.
Little did the world know that the Belgian’s peak years were the ones seen as his stepping stones to greatness.
“I’ve doubted maybe going through enough injuries. I didn’t know whether I’d be at my best. I’ve broken my ankle three times and I don’t know if it will ever be the same again”, he said in 2021.
Now, with two more years and a host of injuries more in his bag, it would be criminal to even expect him to be in a position of mental strength. For all the resilience the winger has shown over the years, it all feels too overwhelming to continue beyond a point.
The hope for Hazard to return to his imperial best will live on. The dream that one day, the former wing-wizard will run through the opposition defence with his signature cutbacks and shimmies of the foot is one that will never leave the minds of Real Madrid fans.
But what seems clear at this point is that Hazard’s days as a Galactico are numbered. The 32-year-old will enter the final year of his contract in the summer and will most certainly be offloaded by Real Madrid.
Perhaps, a change of surroundings could help Hazard gather some of his lost gloss back. But a comeback from such physical, mental and emotional rock-bottom would be difficult even through a miracle. So, it would not come as a surprise if he decides to step away from the game altogether, following in the footsteps of former teammate Gareth Bale.
Three talking points ahead of Real Madrid vs Real Valladolid
Real Madrid take on Real Valladolid on Sunday as they return to La Liga action for the first time since the El Clasico defeat. The game at the Santiago Bernabeu will be crucial as a defeat for Real Madrid at this stage could seal the league title for their arch-rivals.
Their opponents on the day, Valladolid, sit in 15th place in La Liga with 28 points from 26 games. They have won only eight games so far in the league, losing 14 in the process.
There are this several key points to consider before the Merengues’ game at the weekend and the restart of club football. Madrid Universal brings you three such points.
1. Left-back issues persist
It was in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey that Ferland Mendy hobbled off injured. The Frenchman was out of action for close to two months from the last week of January, leaving Carlo Ancelotti without a natural backup.
The manager thus attempted to bridge the gap with the likes of Nacho Fernandez and Eduardo Camavinga, given that David Alaba was simultaneously experiencing fitness troubles of his own.
The makeshift left-backs did a reasonable job but were far from perfect. Time and time again, it became clear that oppositions were targetting the Merengues at their Achilles heel.
In Real Madrid’s clash against Barcelona in La Liga, Mendy made a return, coming on late in the second half in an effort to push for a winner. The impact of his arrival was evident, for there was a sudden awakening on the left flank in the final phase of the game.
Just when it seemed like he was set for a complete return, Mendy suffered an unfortunate setback once again. A blow to his left soleus muscle sees him out of action for another month at least, piling up the problems for Ancelotti.
It could thus be David Alaba who starts at left-back when Los Blancos play Real Valladolid, given that Nacho is suspended. Up against the tricky teenager Ivan Fresneda, the Austrian, who is returning from an injury, could face a tricky challenge.
2. Time is money
The international break is the biggest bane in club football because of the sheer disruption in the rhythm that it brings about.
The chemistry between the players is one of the most critical elements in professional football. That, however, only comes with repeated matches played with the same team with no breaks. For the players to switch setup to a whole different team for a matter of two weeks has historically proven detrimental to the club’s chemistry on the field.
Real Madrid did not end their last phase on a good note. However, the team played good football even in the Clasico defeat and had just beaten Liverpool before that.
For Los Blancos to live on in all competitions, it is crucial that they pick up where they left off before the international break in terms of quality. Heading into the first game of the restart, all eyes will be on the team’s chemistry.
Ancelotti’s men do not have a lot of time. They play three must-win games against quality opposition within a month – two UCL games against Chelsea and the cup semifinal against Barcelona. Thus, they cannot afford to waste much time regaining their lost understanding on the field. Time, after all, is money.
3. To compete or not to compete: That is the question
Owing to the defeat to Barcelona in the last matchday and the Catalans’ win over Elche on Saturday, Real Madrid sit 15 points behind league leaders Barcelona. There remain only 12 games in the league this season and a comeback for the men in white seems improbable.
Real Madrid thus face an important crossroad. One option for the club would be to forfeit the league mentally and utilise the remaining games to rotate important players and focus on UEFA Champions League and Spanish Cup. After all, they are the events where the team stands a higher chance of glory.
On the contrary would be the choice of giving all attractions the same importance. In such a situation, it would be difficult for the team to manage given the right schedule. Will Ancelotti’s men choose to sacrifice La Liga for the other competitions? Or will be a fight on all fronts? Only time will tell.