Real Madrid could not have asked for a smoother start to their campaign. Despite a relatively rocky first game against Almeria, Los Blancos have come back strong to dominate their next three fixtures.
They currently top the La Liga table with a perfect score of 12 points after four games. Moreover, they have already lifted their first silverware of the season in the form of the UEFA Super Cup.
Carlo Ancelotti could not ask for a better time to kick off the UEFA Champions League campaign. The men in white are in high spirits and will look to keep their good run going on Tuesday night when they take on Celtic in their first Group F encounter.
Madrid Universal brings you three talking points ahead of the game in Glasgow on Tuesday night.
1. Unlocking a new objective
Not many people gave Real Madrid a chance to go all the way in Europe last season. The men in white were thought to be in a period of transition, and the pre-season expectations were not as high.
As the year progressed, it became increasingly clear that Los Blancos were in no way inferior to their European competitors. One by one, they knocked out the best sides in Europe just with their never-say-never mentality.
Chelsea, PSG and Manchester City were all in better positions against Carlo Ancelotti’s side at different stages of their face-off. However, Real Madrid found a way to pull off a comeback.
Now, they enter the new edition of the Champions League as the defending champions. With that status comes the pressure of being favourites, and it remains to be seen if the team can continue their high-level performance without the underdog tag.
Los Blancos are in Group F alongside RB Leipzig, Celtic and Shakhtar Donetsk. The group is not the toughest and the Spanish champions are expected to finish on top comfortably.
Real Madrid’s title defence begins in Glasgow on Tuesday night, and they will look to put a strong first step into the competition. Yet, the manager cannot afford to underestimate his opposition on the night.
2. An opposition in-form
The defending Scottish champions are no lucky candidates in the Champions League. Celtic are one of five clubs in the world to have won over 100 trophies in their history, including a whopping 52 domestic league titles. They are no strangers to European success too, winning the UCL in 1967.
If one were to peek into Ange Postecoglou’s side’s recent form, the sight would be terrifying. The Scottish giants have not dropped points in their last eight games across all competitions. The last time they faced a loss was in mid-April and the streak has been running for 18 games.
One can argue that the Scottish League does not offer the same level as other top European Leagues, but the statistics are an indication of the winning mentality of the team. Real Madrid are no strangers to upsets in the group stages of the UCL and will have to be wary of Celtic’s threat.
Liel Abada and Kyogo Furuhashi have been in excellent form for the Hoops, scoring six goals each this season. The former has found the back of the net every 46 minutes. In midfield, Matt O’Riley has been a machine and has five assists to his name.
The Scottish Champions have scored a ridiculous 17 goals in their last three games and 24 in their last five. It goes without saying that Ancelotti cannot take the tie at Celtic Park for granted.
3. To rotate or not to rotate
Given that the team played against Real Betis less than 72 hours ago, the manager will be tempted to shuffle his cards. However, the question remains – to what extent?
Antonio Rudiger was benched for the game at the weekend and has good chances to start on Tuesday. He could slot into a centre-back pairing with Eder Militao with David Alaba featuring at left-back.
In midfield, Aurelien Tchouameni and Toni Kroos are expected to retain their starting positions. However, Luka Modric may be given a deserved rest with Eduardo Camavinga coming in his place.
The dynamics in the attack are not expected to change drastically. Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior are integral parts of the team and will not be benched under any circumstance. The third place in attack could be given to Rodrygo once again, especially after his game-changing performance against Los Verdiblancos.
The key to success lies in striking the right balance between youth and experience. As the schedule begins to get tight, the onus is now on Ancelotti to play his cards wisely.
Eden Hazard’s downfall: From brilliance to burnout
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.