With Eden Hazard at his best, Chelsea is back in the Premier League mix

There may not be a more confounding player in soccer than Eden Hazard. When form finds the little Belgian attacker, there isn’t any stopping him. But when the alchemy isn’t quite right, a little bit too much of this, not quite enough of that, he has a tendency to disappear and cut a moping figure.

Sometimes it feels like it’s mostly a matter of Hazard bestirring himself to dominate. When he can be bothered, he can do anything he likes on a soccer field. When he can’t, it all looks a little deflating. Because you know what he’s capable of, if only he’ll summon it. Whatever it actually is.

The rise and fall of Hazard’s transcendence tends to correspond neatly with the Premier League season. He hit his prime in the 2014-15 season and was Player of the Year as Chelsea romped to the title under Jose Mourinho. But the next year, he was despondent as things fell apart and the Blues finished 10th, scoring just six goals all season, less than a third of the year before.

In 2016-17, it was a new manager and a new Hazard, who led the club to another championship as he snapped up his fourth place in the Team of the Year. Last year, it was fifth place and an out-of-sorts Hazard who didn’t bag his first goal until Oct. 28.

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard heads the ball during the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard heads the ball during the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

This year, delightfully, we get Good Hazard again. Or maybe that’s Supergood Hazard. And that’s remarkable on account of the enormous workload the 27-year-old put in over the summer. He led Belgium to a third place at the World Cup with a counter-attacking ploy that asked an awful lot of him and Kevin de Bruyne. Belgium would absorb endless pressure and then play the ball out to either of the standout Premier Leaguers, who would invariably take a physical punishment as they protected the ball.

Then followed the usual rumors of a move to Real Madrid or FC Barcelona, a kind of summer tradition for Hazard, who never seems to have come terribly close to actually leaving.

Hazard got an extended break after the World Cup and began the season as a substitute. But he suffered no World Cup hangover, like so many of the others who starred in Russia. (De Bruyne is unsurprisingly out with an injury for a few months.) Hazard has recorded six goals in his first seven games, twice plunging the dagger into perhaps the most-inform team in England or anywhere – Liverpool, up until that point anyway.

On Wednesday, he came off the bench to score a wonder goal in the Carabao Cup, knocking out Liverpool in the third round.

And on Saturday in the league, with both teams in their strongest lineups, he got Chelsea’s only goal of the game to hand Liverpool its first dropped points of the campaign in a superbly played 1-1 tie.

In the 25th minute, Hazard scored on a lightning-quick Chelsea counter. It was launched by a Hazard backheel, constructed through an exchange between Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, and consummated by a slotted Hazard finish on the run.

It would ultimately be undone by a piece of inspiration from substitute Daniel Sturridge in the dying minutes.

And Hazard had a similar look in the 64th minute, when he was dispatched through the Liverpool line again, but was denied one-on-one by Alisson.

But his lone goal very much felt like it had kept Chelsea in a game that afforded Liverpool the better of the chances. Reigning Player of the Year Mohamed Salah – speaking of World Cup hangovers – shanked a clean look early on and when Salah got around Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga at the half hour, Antonio Rudiger tracked back to clear the Egyptian’s rolled finish from a tight angle off the line.

Until Sturridge’s speculative long shot, Liverpool just couldn’t break the goal line as Xherdan Shaqiri bungled a fat chance and David Luiz parried Roberto Firmino’s header off the line.

And Hazard very nearly engineered an injury-time winner when he dropped a corner kick right onto the head of Marcos Alonso at the near post, who headed just over.

And so Chelsea and Liverpool, along with defending champion Manchester City, remain the last three undefeated teams through seven games. City and Liverpool share the lead on points, although the defending champions have the better goal difference. The Blues trail two points behind.

But with a relatively light Europa League schedule – albeit one with long travel to Greece, Belarus and Hungary – Chelsea is an early contender for a third league title in five years. And that’s largely due to Hazard keeping it in games when it might be faced with a slightly superior opponent.

Plainly, the Blues are once again thriving under a new manager, with the mystical Maurizio Sarri rejuvenating a veteran team with his short-passing, possession-oriented attack. This has certainly benefited Hazard as much as anyone. But mostly, Chelsea’s hot start of five wins and two draws seems the residue of Hazard’s scintillating form. It begins there. When he’s casually carving up opposing teams, any manager will look like a genius.

This season, Hazard is Hazarding again, engineering overwhelming victories and keeping the tougher games close. And when that’s the case, Chelsea tends to win things.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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