Barca test a chance for Chelsea's Hazard to shine on biggest stage
Time for Chelsea star to shine on biggest stage
Eden Hazard has been at it again this week.
On this occasion, it was Real Madrid. Sometimes, Paris Saint-Germain take a turn. Once in a while, Barcelona pop up. But, most of the time, Chelsea's restless winger gets linked with the Galacticos.
Naturally, Hazard plays down the transfer talk. He insists he wants to stay at Stamford Bridge. He eats, sleeps and dreams all things Chelsea, particularly when they're about to step out and face Barcelona in the Champions League.
His transparent pleas are marginally less obvious than a T-shirt that reads, "Hola Madrid", but Hazard's modus operandi is well established by now.
Chelsea wobble, their title defence disintegrates and Hazard reiterates his loyalty to the club, just in case anyone out there was interested.
But Real and PSG haven't been particularly interested. Reservations persist and with good reason. Hazard rarely delivers against opposition of their calibre. Not as frequently as his critics think he should anyway.
At 27, he remains a nearly man, a supremely gifted performer who falls just short of the gods. Hazard's only crime, perhaps, is to share the same era as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
On the greatest stages, they exhaust the superlatives. On the same platform, Hazard can be exhausting.
Across five-and-a-half years, Hazard's 87 Chelsea goals are a steady return for an inverted winger who invariably creates as many as he scores. But he hasn't got within touching distance of those daft PlayStation goal stats of Messi or Ronaldo, the kind of colossus whom Hazard seeks to emulate and eventually replace.
His 15 goals this season highlight his dogged tenacity in a tepid, often underwhelming, side. But that figure also hints at a sensitive artist who excels on smaller canvases.
A superb, whipped strike against Watford came in a 4-1 defeat. Last week, an outstanding double triggered those Real headlines once again, skating over the fact that the opponents were West Brom.
Hazard has rarely dominated a Champions League contest in the knockout stages. He knocked in a penalty against PSG in the last 16 in 2015, but hardly terrorised the Parisians, whom he faced again at the same stage in 2016. Chelsea were knocked out on both occasions.
In 2014, the Blues reached the Champions League semi-finals, but succumbed to Atletico Madrid's ruthless counter-attacking. Hazard's involvement was minimal.
Throughout this decade, beating Europe's best has been bread-and-butter stuff for Ronaldo and Messi, but Hazard hasn't come anywhere close.
His tendency to shrink beneath the biggest spotlight isn't confined to the Champions League either.
At the 2014 World Cup, Hazard was so peripheral against Argentina in the quarter-finals that he was eventually substituted. The Belgian failed to escape Messi's shadow, the story of his life.
Yesterday, Thomas Vermaelen cruelly stated the obvious when he pointed out that his Barcelona clubmate, Messi, was on a different level to Hazard, his Belgian colleague.
But the gap between Hazard and Messi is perhaps less significant than the narrowing divide between Hazard and the next constellation of English Premier League stars.
Liverpool's famed counter-attacking trio destroyed Porto. Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Dele Alli masterminded a stunning comeback against Juventus, enjoying the kind of Champions League moment that defines careers.
No bona fide football immortal leaves home without one.
Tottenham fans still remember Gareth Bale's moment. His star turn against Inter Milan gave birth to both a new Galactico and a new football phrase: "Taxi for Maicon".
Hazard is still waiting for his moment. He's 27 and still hoping to reach that transcendent level of performance, the kind that drops jaws in the Real boardroom.
Instead, there were too many near-misses and excuses.
Under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, he was told to track back, defend and curtail his creative impulses and provide another body behind the ball.
Or there was the constant management upheaval, too many different faces in the dugout, too many different philosophies and changes to his attacking game.
But Messi and Ronaldo have worked with a managerial merry-go-round for a decade.
Change is the norm at both Barcelona and Real. The only constant was their consistency. Genius isn't determined by the old bloke in the dugout, but by the rebels with a ball.
From Hazard's perspective, there are no valid excuses ahead of Barcelona's visit to Stamford Bridge, just a priceless opportunity to prove one's pedigree.
A media interview full of half-hearted denials won't put the Belgian in the shop window. Only a decisive showing against the Catalans can do that.
If Hazard wants a Real contract in the summer, he's got to earn it now.
Hazard hints he could leave Chelsea, amid interest from Real, PSG
Eden Hazard has confessed that he could leave Chelsea in the summer, despite being happy at Stamford Bridge.
With the English Premier League champions slowly losing grip of a top-four spot ahead of a Champions League last-16 first-leg clash with La Liga leaders Barcelona tomorrow morning (Singapore time), the latest revelation will be a bitter blow to the already nervous Chelsea fans.
In an interview with Belgian outlet Telefoot, the 27-year-old said: "I still have two years left on my contract. I feel very good here. The fans love me, my family enjoys life here. We will see.
"In football, anything can happen. But nothing can happen too. Every year they talk about Real or PSG. And when I want to change clubs, I will. But, at the moment, I'm good where I am."
The timing of the news could not have been worse, with the Blues set to take on Manchester United in the EPL on Sunday before their trip to the Etihad Stadium to face leaders Manchester City, who sit 19 points ahead of the fourth-placed side.
Spanish giants Real Madrid and Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain are understood to be interested in the fleet-footed Belgium international and are hoping to take advantage of any disappointmentat the Blues failing to mount a challenge to retain their crown, the Daily Mail reported
Luring Hazard, who has yet to sign a new deal, could potentially be easier if Chelsea's European campaign comes to an early end.
That said, the games against Barcelona and even both Manchester clubs could serve as a platform for Hazard to shine and impress prospective suitors.
Meanwhile, Hazard has voiced his support for under-fire manager Antonio Conte, insisting he can turn Chelsea's season round.
The Italian manager has criticised his employers for their tight transfer strategies, fuelling fears of a summer departure. Hazard, though, believes Conte is the man for the job.
"We win together, we lose together," he said.
"I don't sense there is any player who's not with the coach. Everyone is behind him. All we want is to climb the EPL table and give everything against Barcelona.
"We will see what happens after."