It was always going to take something special to halt the Liverpool juggernaut and Eden Hazard did just that – under the lights at Anfield, no less – with a wonderful solo goal to send Chelsea onwards in the Carabao Cup and dump the Reds out of the competition.
After bobbing and weaving away from a couple of half-hearted challenges from Jordan Henderson and Fabinho in the middle of the pitch, Hazard popped the ball off to Cesar Azpilicueta (through Roberto Firminos legs) on the right wing, received the ball back off him and then went slaloming off towards goal like an alpine skier making their descent.
Naby Keita was squared up and brushed aside, Alberto Moreno was twisted, turned and nut-megged inside out and Simon Mignolet beaten all ends up by the sheer ferocity of the strike that thumped into the side-netting and back out again. It was the easiest assist Azpilicueta will ever register.
Not only was it a piece of individual, match-winning brilliance, it also marked Hazards sixth goal in seven games this season. That total is as many as he scored in 43 games in that bizarre 2015-16 campaign where the Belgians powers briefly appeared to desert him.
Hazard was supposed to be eased back in gently after steering Belgium to third place at the World Cup and indeed Maurizio Sarri has been careful with him, bringing him on as a substitute in three of his seven appearances. Yet Hazard has clearly had other ideas.
Last weekends stalemate against West Ham was the first time this season that he has failed to either assist or score a goal in Chelseas colours this season. Hazard has averaged a goal or an assist every 53.8 minutes for the Blues this term, which begs the question: is he on the cusp of a Mohamed Salah campaign?
During a brief, unhappy spell with Chelsea, Salahs most memorable moment came in a League Cup tie against Shrewbury Town when after cutting in from the right he shanked a shot out for a throw-in while falling over comically in the process, much to the delight of The Shrews supporters in the stands.
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At Liverpool, the Egyptian has been a different beast entirely. Following his arrival in a £36.9m deal from Roma, Salah set about righting the wrongs from his doomed Stamnford Bridge spell, obliterating a number of Premier League records to smithereens during a quite miraculous debut season.
Reeling off each one of his records would take up this word count alone, so here are a select few:
- Salah became the first player to score 32 goals in a 38-game Premier League season, overtaking Luis Suarez, Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo (all on 31).
- Salah scored 44 goals in 52 games in all competitions – more than any Liverpool player had ever managed in a debut season.
- Salah became the first Premier League player to score 40+ goals in all competitions since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2007-08.
In an era in which Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have obliterated standards for what constitutes a good season in terms of goalscoring, Salah somehow managed to keep pace with these extra-terrestial freaks of nature.
Jurgen Klopp succeeded in unlocking Salahs potential by devising a system that allowed him to flourish. Central to that was Liverpools man in the middle, Roberto Firmino, whose selfless work as a deep-lying False 9 created holes and gaps further up the field for the explosive Egyptian to exploit.
Similarly to Salah, Hazard has started the season like a man possessed and is looking capable of doing something he has never done before. After years of looking to tee up others, Hazard now appears to have developed a ruthless, cold-blooded approach in front of goal.
Barring that one freak season when Hazard and his colleagues went on holiday for the year, Chelseas No.10 has always been a consistent provider of goals, if not by the bucketful. His 214 Premier League games have yielded a healthy 74 goals, working out at just over ten per season or a goal every 2.89 games.
When Chelsea last won the league in 2016-17, Hazard contributed 16 goals in 36 games. However, for one so talented, perhaps more has been expected of him in terms of goal output. It seems quite remarkable to think that Hazard has never scored more than 20 goals in all competitions across a single campaign in English football.
The only time he has done so in his career, in fact, was in his final year with Lille when he managed 22 goals in 49 games – form that had Europes finest flocking to France to try and sign him. Indeed, if you look at his club career in total, he has only scored 21 goals more than Salah in an extra 191 games.
Hazards purple patch could end up being just that. However, like Salah at Liverpool, Hazard now has a manager committed to playing open, expansive football in Sarri as well as a hard-working centre forward to feed off, with Olivier Giroud playing the Firmino role, albeit a slightly more clunky, physical version of it.
Sarris appointment in the summer was an interesting one as he is virtually the polar opposite to many of Roman Abramovichs recent managerial hires. Unlike Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, Sarri doesnt boast numerous major honours on his CV and also unlike them his style of play releases rather than inhibits his attacking players.
Sarris Napoli team might not have lifted the Scudetto, but they were thrilling to watch and bloodthirsty in attack. They plundered 251 goals across his three Serie A campaigns in charge, including 94 in the 2016-17 season – a total that is the most any team has managed in a season in Serie As 120-year history.
Individuals thrived in Sarris 4-3-3 formation with Gonzalo Higauin breaking Gunnar Nordahls 66-year record for most goals scored by a foreigner in Serie A with 36 in 35 games in the 2015-16 season and Dries Mertens managing 28 in 35 the following year.
Mertens, who like Hazard is a Belgian renowned for his dribbling qualities, was transformed into a serial goal-getter by Sarri after Higuains ready-made replacement Arek Milik ruptured his ACL. Hazard might not play in the same role as Mertens at the apex of Sarris system, but it is clear that Chelseas strategy this year will lead to greater chances for their front three.
As for Giroud, is there a better attacking foil in elite level football than the Frenchman? He may not be a prolific goalscorer or particularly subtle at what he does, but plenty of twinkle-toed forwards have profited from his hold-up play; Alexis Sanchez, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe chief among them.
Only Manchester City (with 94) rank higher for chances created than Chelsea (86) in the Premier League this season while the Blues are also getting the second-highest number of shots off too, again second to Pep Guardiolas free-flowing champions.
As in previous seasons, chances will fall Hazards way, but if the early weeks of the season are anything to go by, now he possesses the killer instinct to finish them off. As Chelsea prepare to renew hostilities with Liverpool for a second time in four days, we will get another opportunity to see whether Hazard really can match Salahs form last term.
Five goals down, 27 to go.
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