On the evening of Real Madrid’s arrival back in the Spanish capital parading the club’s 14th European Cup, Eden Hazard took the microphone that was being passed around as the heroes of the victory over Liverpool celebrated at the city’s Cibeles fountain. It was a surprising gesture. Hazard was not, by any stretch of the imagination, one of the campaign’s heroes.
Far from it. The most expensive purchase in Madrid’s current squad, the man at the top of the club’s salary scale, played a mere eight minutes in the rollercoaster ride through comeback after comeback that was his team’s journey to Paris last month.
He sat on the bench through the 1-0 win over Liverpool. He contributed a mere seven starts to the club’s Liga triumph, and no goals. His last assist in the league was on the first day of the season.
What Hazard wanted at Cibeles was not to steal other players’ deserved limelight, but to make an apologetic promise. “Madridistas,” Hazard told the crowd. “I have been here for three seasons with lots of injuries and things. Next year, I will be giving everything for you.”
Evidence that may not be an empty promise reached Madrid supporters on Wednesday evening, through highlights from Belgium’s 6-1 Uefa Nations League thumping of Poland in Brussels.
Hazard was in his county’s line-up at kick-off, the first time he had started a match for anybody since January, and the sternest test yet of the calf problem that has troubled him for the best part of two years, and for which he underwent surgery in March.
Less than five minutes into the game, a neat backheel from Hazard, following a gently-paced slalom, set up Michy Batshuayi, whose ‘goal’ was ruled out for a narrow offside. After Poland had taken the lead, Hazard’s disguised pass to Kevin de Bruyne put Belgium on course for a victory given its emphatic margin by late goals.
Belgium 6 Poland 1 - in pictures
Hazard, wearing the captain’s armband, was delighted with his impact on a necessary win for Belgium, beaten 4-0 last week by the Netherlands “I’m obviously not at 100 per cent,” said Hazard, “but at the moment, things are coming together. I’d say I’m at 80 per cent, so there’s a good margin of progress yet. And I’m going to be the player I used to be.”
That player was a great entertainer for whom Madrid staked over €100m to prise him from Chelsea in the summer of 2019. They had bought a footballer who for periods of his seven years in London was the most watchable individual in the Premier League. And tough, too.
Part of Hazard’s skill in mastering English football was to ride so many heavy tackles and weather constant bruises.
His fragile stop-start Madrid career has been quite the opposite, a fractured foot adding to various muscle problems to curtail his influence. He now has two Liga titles, but across those two seasons, he contributed just one Liga goal.
He has his first Champions League gold medal, thanks to the Paris triumph, but knows that the player who secured the victory, Vinicius Junior, now has ownership of the position, on the left of Madrid’s front three, that Hazard had been signed to fill.
A run of Hazard starts for Belgium would be welcomed by Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid head coach and by madridistas, even if they have sometimes been sceptical about Hazard’s turning out for his national team while missing games with injury for his club.
Liverpool 0 Real Madrid 1 - player ratings
Both Ancelotti and Roberto Martinez, the Belgian head coach, are looking for reassurance that Hazard, 31, can become “the player [he used to be,” and whether the sudden changes of pace and direction that were such a key part of his game are still in his make-up.
He will never match Vinicius for speed, but there may be a role for a fit, confident Hazard playing off the central striker, Karim Benzema, at Madrid, or switching flanks with Vinicius.
He is not, for all his legacy to Belgium – 117 caps, 33 goals, inspirational in taking the country to third place at the 2018 World Cup – guaranteed a first XI slot under Martinez. Against Poland, Hazard went off after 66 minutes.
His replacement, Leandro Trossard, of Brighton, promptly scored two excellent goals. There is competition for attacking places, and besides Trossard, it comes from the 21-year-old Bruges starlet Charles de Ketelaere, and Hazard’s younger brother, Thorgan, of Borussia Dortmund.
Up next is Saturday’s Nations League meeting with Wales, and perhaps with Gareth Bale, with whom the older Hazard has spent many long hours watching from the sidelines of Madrid these past three seasons.
Both the €100m men vanished from the club’s line-ups for long periods, Bale far more resented by madridistas than Hazard for his anonymity, but still envied by Hazard for Bale’s secure place in the club’s history thanks to decisive performances in the early part of the Welshman’s eight-year service at the Bernabeu.
Bale treasures some truly standout trophy-clinching moments in a Madrid jersey; Hazard is still waiting for one of those.