Shortly after coming off the substitutes’ bench to carve open Arsenal on Saturday, Eden Hazard confirmed that Chelsea have won the battle to determine where he will play his football this season — while reminding everyone that the definitive fight is far from over.
Chelsea know the uncertainty over Hazard’s future will only be settled once he is either sold or signs a long-term contract extension. This summer he was not inclined to follow the example of Thibaut Courtois by forcing a move to Real Madrid. Next summer, entering the final year of his deal, he won’t have to — and the reigning European champions are unlikely to be his only suitors.
That is a scenario Chelsea want to avoid at all costs. ESPN FC takes a look at five ways they can make sure it doesn’t come to pass:
1. Pay him whatever he wants
Money will not be the determining factor in where Hazard decides to spend the rest of his prime years. His attraction to Madrid is both emotional and pragmatic, borne equally out of his boyhood dreams and a realistic assessment of where he stands the best chance to win the Champions League, the one major medal missing from his club collection.
That said, everyone likes to feel valued. Hazard is arguably the most talented footballer in Chelsea’s history, so it is fitting that he should be rewarded as such. Chelsea have the chance to make a financial commitment in Hazard that reflects their level of faith in his ability. All the indications are that, given the slightest encouragement, Roman Abramovich will not hesitate to pay whatever it takes.
2. Give him the club captaincy
It’s tempting to connect Maurizio Sarri’s delay in naming a new permanent Chelsea captain with the fact that Hazard is not yet fit enough to start. Gary Cahill has done nothing to lose the honour and Cesar Azpilicueta is a flawless candidate but, for reasons big and small, the Belgian is the smart choice.
Giving someone the armband does not secure their undying loyalty; Arsene Wenger was forced to sell successive Arsenal captains Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie when footballing ambition began to gnaw at them. There is considerable risk of a Hazard captaincy meeting a similar end.
But it is another significant show of faith that cannot hurt Chelsea’s chances, and Hazard proved beyond doubt during Belgium’s impressive World Cup campaign that he can lead a talented and ambitious team by example.
3. Make sure “Sarri-ball” is a success
Hazard’s admission that “it might be time to discover something different” this summer was telling. It hinted that his most pressing desire, more than a change of scene, is to feel reinvigorated by a new footballing situation. The arrival of Sarri brings the possibility that he can find what he is looking for at Stamford Bridge.
In six years at Chelsea, Hazard has never had a coach as proactive and technically minded as Sarri. His biggest successes have come under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, two authoritarian pragmatists. Any tactical freedom afforded him within the system was granted in reluctant acknowledgement, rather than enthusiastic endorsement, of his supreme talent. At times, the attacking burden on him was crushing.
Sarri empowers his attacking players to take risks and push the boundaries of their skills within a system that ensures they will always have options. If Chelsea succeed with this style of football, Hazard should have the time of his life.
4. Close the gap to Manchester City
Having fun on the pitch is one thing, but Hazard also wants to win. He has delivered in big moments throughout his Chelsea career and, in both seasons when he had the privilege of being part of the best team in England, he helped ensure they were convincing Premier League champions.
Chelsea finished 30 points adrift of Pep Guardiola’s imperious Manchester City side last season and missed out on Champions League qualification for the second time in three years. They are one more underwhelming campaign away from staring into the abyss of domestic and European irrelevance.
Hazard wants no part of a sustained decline and has the contract leverage necessary to exit next summer if he concludes Chelsea are on such a path. It is up to Sarri to convince the Belgian that his vision, coupled with the ambitious signings of Jorginho and Kepa Arrizabalaga, is taking the club back to contention.
5. Make sure Kovacic sticks around
Having watched some of the dazzling interplay between Hazard and Mateo Kovacic during Chelsea’s dominant second half against Arsenal, a cynic might have remarked that the future looks bright for Real Madrid.
Kovacic is only on a season-long loan from the Bernabeu with no defined option for Chelsea to buy, even if his farewell post on Instagram suggested a man with no intention of returning to the Spanish capital. Madrid know how good he is, and will not let him leave permanently without a fight.
But given that Chelsea might boast one of the strongest midfields in European football this season with Kovacic alongside Jorginho and N’Golo Kante, prising the Croatian from Madrid would be a huge statement of intent to Hazard — not to mention timely evidence that the Spanish capital is no longer quite the attraction it once was.