Reality bites as Eden Hazard will hope for Real Madrid improvement after Atletico debacle

Heavy loss to Atletico, albeit in friendly, will have given Belgian superstar much to think about ahead of La Liga season

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A dime for the thoughts of Eden Hazard as he counts down to the moment he has been yearning for so long. For years, Hazard has barely kept it a secret that he dreamed of the day he would make his competitive bow for Real Madrid.

Ideally, Hazard would have left Chelsea for Spain perhaps two summers ago rather than last month. Had he done that, he would have joined the reigning European champions and La Liga title holders. Where he finds himself now, with three weeks to go before the Spanish season begins, is at a club without a trophy to defend, brittle of confidence, and where pre-season has become a landscape of embarrassment, setback and confusion.

Friday's 7-3 defeat to Atletico Madrid in New Jersey may have been only a friendly, but it was a derby, and one with enough heat to provoke a 21-man brawl, and to leave simmering questions about Real's readiness for the months ahead.

Poor Hazard. He had only just been substituted at the MetLife arena when he watched a battering on the scoreboard turn into chaotic fighting. His teammate, Dani Carvajal, and Atletico’s Diego Costa were sent off for a forehead-to-forehead confrontation, two notorious hotheads reenacting many scuffles of the past.

By then, Atletico had scored six times, and, as Real clutched at tiny gems from the debris, they could at least point to Hazard’s moment of skill and determination that led to the first Real goal. His cross, for Nacho to scuffle across the goal-line, had been a rare instance of gumption from a team outfought, out-thought and utterly humbled.

epa07743370 Gareth Bale (R) of Real Madrid shakes hands with teammate Eden Hazard (L) as he comes into the game during the second half of the International Champions Cup (ICC) soccer match between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA, 26 July 2019.  EPA/JUSTIN LANE

Hazard then withdrew, to nurse his bruises. He had been harried from kick off in this relocated Madrid derby by an old rival from London skirmishes, Kieran Trippier, Atletico’s newly signed right-back, from Tottenham Hotspur.

Trippier tracked Hazard, Atletico frequently double-marked him, and the match was still young when the Belgian was brusquely tripped by Saul.

By then, Hazard, on the left of what passed for Real’s formation, realised he was working along a dysfunctional flank. Behind him, Marcelo had an awful game, the Brazilian full-back doing nothing to correct the impression that his dynamic form over the period of Real’s serial European Cups between 2016 and 2018 has been lost, and that his decline since is a barometer for the team’s overall slump.

Likewise Isco, who gave away a penalty, converted by Costa, one of four goals the pugnacious forward squeezed in before his fun was ended by the red card.

Hazard cannot help but feel alarmed. When he was presented as Madrid’s stellar recruit of this summer, he was entitled to think his new employers and long-time suitors had worked studiously to build a plan around him.

A new left-back, Ferland Mendy, had been bought from Lyon, Mendy’s youthful energy tailored to protect Hazard’s flank to spare Hazard extra duties tracking back. A promising centre-forward, Luka Jovic, was also purchased, precisely the target-man type Hazard likes to play off.

But Hazard will now have to wait before he develops partnerships with either of them. Jovic was injured against Atletico. His pained retreat from the pitch suggested he may not be back in action very promptly. Mendy meanwhile picked up a muscle injury last week. He will probably miss the first two weeks of the season.

It gets worse. Marco Asensio, whose deployment on the right of Real’s front three looked a fruitful counterpoint to Hazard on the left, suffered a cruciate ligament rupture in Real’s previous friendly, against Arsenal. Asensio will not be fit until well into 2020.

All of these crises have been played out to the background saga of Gareth Bale’s departure from Madrid. The last man before Hazard to join the club from the Premier League for €100 million-plus (more than Dh409m) deal is being gracelessly ushered away, the coach Zinedine Zidane explicitly declaring he is not in his plans.

Not that Zidane addressed that issue as he made his way out of the rubble of Friday’s humiliation. Hazard and his teammates waited in vain for the manager in the dressing-room after the thrashing. Zidane instead went directly to the news conference and then to the team bus.

“There’s no point going over and over this,” Zidane said. “We started very badly, we fell short on everything, especially intensity, and conceding seven goals is not something we can let happen, whether it’s a friendly or not. But that’s all there is to say.

“We will be motivated when the season starts and it will be a good season. I have a very competitive team.”

Hazard will be relieved to see evidence of that over the next three weeks.