Eden Hazard is beginning to show glimpses of his best form and it cannot come soon enough for Real Madrid. They play at home to Galatasaray in the Champions League on Wednesday, when victory would put them within touching distance of qualification from Group A.
Hazard has endured a disjointed and disappointing start in Spain, where expectations soared following his long-awaited 100-million euro move from Chelsea in June.
A week later, 50,000 thousand fans streamed into the Santiago Bernabeu to see Hazard wear the shirt while some even ran to the entrances to grab a better seat.
As supporters left, Hazard was giving his first press conference underneath the stadium, telling a packed auditorium he wanted to be a galactico.
“I’m not a galactico, not yet, but I hope I will be one day,” he said.
But the grand opening fizzled, in part due to events off the pitch, a combination of bad luck and personal circumstances that have spared the 28-year-old harsher critique from fans and journalists alike.
On the day before Madrid’s first game of the season away at Celta Vigo, Hazard pulled a muscle in his thigh in training and had to withdraw from the squad.
He sat out three matches before making his first start against Paris Saint-Germain, but looked off the pace and it was a night to forget as Madrid were thrashed 3-0.
Hazard was left on the bench against Osasuna amid reports he was overweight and then scored his first goal against Granada, a delightful looping finish that promised finally to unleash the Belgian’s best.
“We know the quality of player we have and we know he is going to deliver,” said Zinedine Zidane in September.
“Everyone expects a lot from him and he knows that. But we support him and as the games go by I am sure he is going to be the player we want him to be in this Real Madrid team.”
But the international break checked Hazard’s momentum and he missed Madrid’s first match back, a 1-0 loss away at Mallorca, due to the birth of his fourth child.
In the three games since, he has appeared in bursts, delivering exhilirating moments like the glorious flick inside against Galatasaray and a run in behind to win the penalty against Leganes. “He sees things that other players cannot see,” Zidane said.
Yet there have been disappointments too, not so much glaring errors as a general hesistance, a tendency to choose the safe option or fail to choose at all when in those attacking positions he usually relishes.
Hazard’s most impressive showing so far was arguably against Real Betis last weekend, when Madrid failed to score but he had his exuberance back, not to mention the change of pace that at times has appeared worryingly absent.
He was darting through gaps rather than turning away from them, taking risks, and unfortunate to see a superb goal ruled out for offside.
“Everyone wants to see Eden playing better,” Zidane said last week. “But I see him getting much better every day. He will get there in the end for sure.”
Madrid’s goalless draw against Betis shows why Hazard’s crescendo must find its climax, and quickly, if Zidane’s team are to avoid the same problems up front that proved their undoing last season.
Despite the best efforts of Benzema in recent months, the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo is still to be filled and although Hazard has never been a prolific scorer, he can contribute and enhance the numbers of others.
Those that know Hazard say he has a relaxed, down-to-earth personality, unfazed by attention and uninterested in the pizazz of modern football. Perhaps it is one of the reasons his move to Madrid was not pushed through sooner.
But to succeed, he is likely not only to need that zip again that comes only with full fitness but self-belief, to take ownership of this Madrid side in the same way he once commanded the adoration of Stamford Bridge.Few doubt Hazard will soon rediscover his peak, certainly not Zidane, who insists goals are all he needs. Real Madrid need them too.