Hazard warning for Chelsea's rivals
Despite finishing third in the Premier League last season behind Liverpool and champions Manchester City, Chelsea have been installed as favourites by bookmakers and pundits alike for the forthcoming campaign.
The reasoning is relatively easy to understand.
Jose Mourinho spent much of his first year back at Stamford Bridge talking about the Blues being a team in transition and lamenting the profligacy of his strikers. So when the 2013-14 campaign concluded without any silverware to add to the collection already gleaming in owner Roman Abramovich's extensive cabinet, the Portuguese moved swiftly to address perceived deficiencies.
Club legends Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard were allowed to leave while David Luiz, Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba were sold and Samuel Eto'o released. Arriving in SW6 came prolific striker Diego Costa, former Atletico Madrid teammate Filipe Luis, ex-Arsenal and Barcelona midfield playmaker Cesc Fabregas and returning hero Didier Drogba.
"Last season was important for me and for the players, but I think we did a fantastic job in the transfer market," Mourinho said Friday. "We went exactly to the targets we want to go."
Luis, Fabregas and Costa have fit in well so far in preseason -- Fabregas and Costa in particular have caught the eye. Spain international Costa scored a sensational goal in a 2-0 win against Fenerbahce on Friday and ended his celebrations by running to the Blues' bench to be congratulated by Drogba.
Eyebrows were raised when Mourinho re-signed the Ivorian, 36, but having his talismanic presence around the dressing room may turn out to be a shrewd move, given the departures of Cole and Lampard. The essence of Mourinho's successful sides of the past is team spirit and all the evidence points to a happy camp indeed.
While the arrivals have grabbed the headlines, one player set to benefit from these acquisitions has fallen largely under the radar this summer. Following his World Cup exertions in Brazil, Belgium international Eden Hazard was allowed a month's holiday and has only recently joined his teammates, making his first appearance as a second-half substitute in last weekend's 3-0 loss to Werder Bremen.
"I'm happy to be back on the pitch with the team," Hazard said after the game. "I tried to give my best, but it was my first minutes and it was difficult. I hope the next game will be better."
Hazard featured in both of the recent workouts against Fenerbahce and Besiktas and looked much sharper, showing a flash of genius when playing in Oscar for a goal against Fenerbahce that was incorrectly ruled offside.
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Recently handed the prestigious No.10 shirt vacated by the sale of Juan Mata to Manchester United, Hazard -- who had been the subject of frenzied speculation linking him with a 70 million pound move to Paris Saint-Germain -- was delighted with Mourinho's decision.
"It is my favourite number and is one I am used to wearing for the national team, as well as the one worn by some of my heroes from when I was a kid, like Zinedine Zidane," he said.
Starting his third campaign as a Chelsea player, Hazard already has 111 games under his belt for the Blues, scoring 30 goals. His composure, pace and skill immediately won fans at Stamford Bridge and had the football world purring. Last season may have ended trophy-less for the London club but Hazard won the Professional Footballers' Association Young Player of the Year award and was also voted Chelsea's Player of the Year.
The new campaign is critical for Mourinho. Excuses will fall on deaf ears and failure is not an option. Players will have to stand up and be counted and rise to the challenge. Ready and willing to do just that is Chelsea's Hazard -- and that's an ominous warning.