In his last season as manager of Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti was kept informed of the club’s growing interest in an exciting young Belgian lighting up French football. The player was at Lille, and the research carried out by Chelsea’s scouts was almost entirely positive.
Some impressive statistics were passed around the manager’s office. They told of a skilful dribbler, with great balance and surprising robustness given how often he was fouled. For two seasons running, he reached double figures for Ligue 1 assists. He was still only a teenager for most of that period.
Ancelotti was too wise than to plan carefully for how he might use Eden Hazard, whom Chelsea decided to bid for. He knew Chelsea managers come and go too frequently to plot that far ahead. Sure enough, Ancelotti had been sacked a year before Hazard arrived in London in the summer of 2012.
The Hazard data on Ancelotti’s desk at Real Madrid, where he is now embarking on his second spell as head coach, describes a rather different footballer from the bright, daring youngster of a decade ago.
Hazard turned 30 in January. He cost Madrid over €100 million ($118m) when they signed him off the back of seven mostly outstanding seasons at Chelsea. But he has started only just over a quarter of Madrid’s Liga matches in the two years since. As for racking up assists in double-figures, like he did at Lille and regularly at Chelsea, he is way off that. In the last Spanish league campaign he set up a mere one goal.
Hazard has become a headache for Madrid. The various injuries – a bone fracture and muscle strains – that have kept him out of action for more time than he has been fit have driven the club to explore whether there might be viable exits from the Bernabeu.
Chelsea were indirectly sounded out. The answer from Stamford Bridge is that any Hazard reunion is extremely unlikely. Madrid would want to recoup at least half the fee they paid in 2019; Chelsea, who have an abundance of players who like to attack from wide positions, would not pay anything close to that. They are intent on devoting the bulk of their summer budget on a centre-forward.
Besides, Hazard is determined to make good on his stalled Madrid career, and though he must now try to relaunch it without the guidance of a head coach, Zinedine Zidane, who was among his greatest backers, he is encouraged by the words of Ancelotti, Zidane’s successor.
“This could be the right year for him to show all his potential,” Ancelotti said. “He is a top player, but had problems in his first year so he hasn’t been able to perform at his maximum potential. He will get there, because he is determined and highly motivated.”
Ancelotti sent Hazard a good luck message during the European championship, where the player captained Belgium in two of their victories, including the last-16 stage win over Portugal. He seemed, after tentative appearances from the bench in the first two group games, to be recovering full fitness after an injury-hit end of season with Madrid.
But familiar problems returned. Hazard missed the quarter-final defeat against Italy with a hamstring issue. He will join Madrid’s pre-season preparations next week to a specific fitness regime and uncertainty about what condition he will be in by mid-August, when La Liga starts.
Ancelotti has been told Madrid will not make any blockbuster signings this summer, other than David Alaba, the former Bayern Munich defender signed on a free transfer, because of the heavy impact on the club’s budget of the pandemic. Hazard remains the last of a procession of almost annual superstar arrivals and not the only one whom Ancelotti is challenged to restore to past greatness.
Gareth Bale, loaned out to Tottenham Hotspur last season and with a year of his Madrid contract still to run, is back in Spain, awaiting a solution – another loan, or a deal to rescind his contract – to what has become an unhappy relationship between club and player.
So is striker Luka Jovic, who cost €60m in 2019 but spent the first six months of this year on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt having failed to convince Zidane, who stepped down in May, he is a good fit at Madrid.
Martin Odegaard, the Norwegian, is also under Ancelotti’s orders, having spent last season on loan at Arsenal, from where Dani Ceballos – currently with Spain’s Olympic team along with Madrid winger Marco Asensio – has also returned.
The challenge for Hazard is both to stay fit and then convince Ancelotti he should be the automatic choice for one of the wide attacking positions in the team, ahead of the likes of Odegaard, Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, the Brazilians Vinicius and Rodrygo or even, if they stay, the veterans Isco and Bale.