we may well be witnessing the countdown to the end of Eden Hazard’s Chelsea career, but it appears the forward wants to give Stamford Bridge a few more memories to cherish before he waves a fond farewell.
Real Madrid may not thank Hazard for pushing his price up with a goal of stunning quality against West Ham United, but the Spaniards were given another reminder of why he is worth every penny Chelsea demand – even with just a year remaining on his contract.
It was not just the opening goal, which he later added to with a second, but also Hazard’s general performance that marked him out from every other player on the pitch on Monday night.
He’s a special talent that English football will miss.
Hazard now has 19 goals in all competitions this season and, in this kind of form, is good enough to make sure he helps Maurizio Sarri’sside qualify for the Champions League before heading for the exit. This result pushed them up to third place in the Premier League table and made it three successive victories in the race for the top four.
Sarri stuck with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who had both helped Chelsea to a 3-0 victory over Brighton. But in-form striker Olivier Giroud was rested in preparation for Thursday night’s Europa League trip to Slavia Prague, so Gonzalo Higuain came back in.
It was the Argentine who played a wonderful early through ball for Hazard to chase that forced Angelo Ogbonna to foul the Belgian. The West Ham defender was booked, but Emerson sent the resulting free-kick well wide.
N’Golo Kante then sent a left-footed shot inches over the bar after receiving the ball from Cesar Azpilicueta and turning his way past Ogbonna. Azpilicueta combined with Kante again in the 22nd minute, with the midfielder this time back-heeling the ball into the path of Chelsea’s captain who fell over under a challenge but no penalty was given.
Hazard’s moment of magic came two minutes later, as he stunned Stamford Bridge with a contender for goal of the season. Having picked the ball up from Loftus-Cheek 40 yards from goal, Hazard accelerated past both Mark Noble and Declan Rice before leaving Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena for dead, and avoiding an attempted challenge from Ryan Fredericks to shoot past Lukasz Fabianski.
Hazard celebrated by cupping his ears to the noisy visiting supporters and Sarri fist-pumped on the touchline. As most of the crowd were still digesting what they had just witnessed, Hazard then played a sublime pass over the top of the West Ham defence and Higuain hit the outside of Fabianski’s post.
The Hammers breathed a sigh of relief again just before the half-an-hour mark, when Marko Arnautovic somehow got away with shoving Hazard to the ground in his own penalty area. This was Hazard at his very best and the next Chelsea player to almost profit from his genius was Hudson-Odoi, who was picked out at the back post but could not get a shot away.
West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini had responded to the home defeat to Everton by making five changes to his side. Noble returned to captain the Hammers, while Balbuena, Fredericks, Felipe Anderson and Javier Hernandez were also recalled. Hernandez arrived with a remarkable record against Chelsea, having scored nine goals against them in his career and netted on each of his last four visits to Stamford Bridge.
But Pellegrini’s changes did little good in a first half in which his team were lucky not to be out of the game. Another brilliant Hazard pass found Hudson-Odoi on the right, but the winger’s shot was tipped over by Fabianksi. It took a superb block from Fredericks to stop Higuain doubling Chelsea’s lead just before the break from Kante’s cross.
It was no surprise that Pellegrini opted to make a change at the break, with Robert Snodgrass replacing Hernandez. But Hazard picked up where he had left off by sending an angled shot inches wide of the post.
Despite being completely outplayed for the first 55 minutes, there was a sign of encouragement for the visitors when Manuel Lanzini forced Kepa Arrizabalaga into his first save. Anderson found Arnautovic on the right, who pulled the ball back, but Kepa was equal to Lanzini’s well struck shot.
Anderson then forced the goalkeeper into a save low to his left. Kepa was well beaten when Aaron Cresswell smashed a left-footed volley towards goal, but fortunately for him and Chelsea the ball flew just wide of the post and the home side’s lead remained intact.
The game had opened up and Hazard almost got through with more solo brilliance before Anderson burst towards the byline but poked the ball straight to Kepa. Sarri made his first change with 20 minutes remaining, sending on Ross Barkley in place of Loftus-Cheek who had curled a shot narrowly wide during the second half and earned warm applause from the home fans.
Hudson-Odoi almost set up Barkley to settle any late nerves, but the midfielder could not connect with the ball at the back post. It mattered not, as Hazard added a second in the 90th minute from Barkely’s pass. It really was his night.