By Liam Twomey
A month ago, calmly batting away mischievous media comparisons with the incomparable Lionel Messi, Chelsea’s biggest summer signing insisted that, if he was to light up Stamford Bridge, he would do it “the Eden Hazard way”.
Only he knew exactly what that entailed, and only he knew just how quickly he would drown out the expectation with a deafening torrent of applause.
Just two matches into his Premier League career, Hazard has already given his doubters a spectacular taste of the qualities which made him the darling of Ligue 1 while at Lille, tormenting anyone brave or foolish enough to wander into his path with a dazzling combination of pace, skill and dribbling almost surgical in its precision.
An underwhelming display against Manchester City in the Community Shield led some to suggest the young Belgian might take time to develop into the jewel in Chelsea's already star-studded crown, invariably citing the much-fabled pace and physicality of the Premier League as the likeliest cause of any early struggles.
But Hazard has since proved the normal rules do not seem to apply to him. A scintillating first-half performance provided the Blues with a decisive lead against Wigan, while his influence was even more keenly felt against a spirited Reading.
It took just 17 minutes for Chris Gunter to join Ivan Ramis as one of the more unfortunate victims of the £32 million man’s mesmerising feet, enabling Frank Lampard to open the scoring from 12 yards.
Pavel Pogrebnyak’s brilliant header and Petr Cech’s horrible fumble from Danny Guthrie’s fierce free-kick saw the Blues lose their way, but even in their darkest moments Hazard provided their main hope of a reprieve, probing and pulling his dogged opponents left and right and, eventually, working the space for Gary Cahill to drill home a soft equaliser.
Fernando Torres’ tap-in, from an offside position, was just as striking for the fact that Chelsea managed to carve an opening without Hazard’s direct involvement, but there could be no denying this was the Belgian’s night.
A surreal breakaway in the dying moments presented him with the opportunity to cap a brilliant individual performance with a first goal in England, only for him to instead opt to tee up the better-placed Branislav Ivanovic. Few players are so talented. Even fewer are so selfless.
Roberto Di Matteo could scarcely have dreamed the signing of Hazard would reap such rich early dividends, but a rather less pleasant feeling comes with the realisation that his expensively-assembled side are reliant on a 21-year-old with less than two Premier League matches to his name.
That the former Lille starlet has orchestrated five of Chelsea’s six league goals is not simply a measure of his ability. The Blues may sit at the top of the table but, unlike their star man, they have fallen some way short of convincing as a genuine threat to Manchester’s behemoths.
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A fast start at the DW Stadium on Sunday enabled Di Matteo’s men to emerge with three points from a match which saw them worried and often outplayed by Wigan, and the vulnerabilities hinted at then were laid bare by a commendably ambitious Reading side at Stamford Bridge.
The defensive organisation and resilience which provided the foundation for last season’s miraculous Champions League triumph appears to have been severely blunted by the team’s new attacking outlook, and one suspects better sides will make them rue their new-found sense of adventure.
In attack, the dazzling combinations between Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata already have many Chelsea fans salivating at the thought of a time when the trio are more than loosely acquainted, although the idea Torres will recapture former glories continues to be fuelled more by hope than expectation.
In between, the central midfield pairing of Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel lacks the mobility to out-manoeuvre more athletic opponents, and the disjointed Blues have occasionally struggled to provide their gifted young playmakers with the stage on which to shine.
So far, the remarkable emergence of Chelsea’s marquee signing has kept such concerns well and truly in the shadows.
But improvement is needed to overcome the far tougher challenges which lie ahead, even if the sensational Hazard continues to show them the way - his way.
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