“I think it’s a goodbye,” Chelsea star Eden Hazard admitted on the Olympic Stadium pitch in Baku. “My dream was to play in the Premier League and I’ve done this for seven years at one of the biggest clubs in the world. So now maybe it’s time for a new challenge.”
In the 90 minutes that preceded that interview with BT Sport, Hazard had taken Arsenal apart in the Europa League final. The Belgian was at his brilliant best, scoring twice and creating Pedro’s opener as Chelsea ran out 4-1 winners. It was little wonder Real Madrid were prepared to make Hazard their club-record signing.
Los Blancos had pursued the Belgium international for several years only for the Blues to rebuff the La Liga giants. Yet the summer of 2019 was a natural end point in the relationship between Chelsea and Hazard, who with just one year remaining on his contract at Stamford Bridge departed in a deal worth up to £130million.
READ MORE: Chelsea handed huge Real Madrid boost as important Thomas Tuchel request is granted
“It’s no secret that it was my dream to play for Real Madrid since I was a young boy just scoring my first goal,” Hazard wrote on Facebook after his transfer was confirmed. “Now the clubs have reached an agreement I hope you understand I had to pursue my next chapter, just as each and every one of you should when you have the chance to pursue your dreams. Leaving Chelsea is the biggest and toughest decision in my career to date. I have loved every moment at Chelsea and not once did I ever consider, nor would I have left for, any other club.”
Hazard’s departure hurt, especially given Chelsea had to serve a transfer ban and were unable instantly replace their talisman, creator, and leading goalscorer. Yet Real Madrid’s decision to bring the winger to the Bernebau began a series of events that led to the Blues becoming European champions. It was a seismic transfer.
After Hazard moved on, so did Maurizio Sarri, who was tempted back to Serie A by Juventus. At this point, the Chelsea job was not hugely appealing to many top-level coaches. Hazard had gone, the squad was ageing, and new signings were off the table due to the transfer ban. So Chelsea turned to Frank Lampard, the Blues’ all-time leading goalscorer but still a rookie coach. “It’s clear playing 13 years at the club helped me get the job, but also in my own way I think I deserve it for the years I put in as a player,” Lampard stated at his unveiling.
The summer of 2019 proved to be one of evolution for Chelsea. Lampard changed the face of the squad by incorporating academy graduates Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori. Christian Pulisic also arrived from Borussia Dortmund six months after a deal had been struck for the U.S. star. Failed big-money signings of the past, including Davide Zappacosta and Tiemoue Bakayoko, were loaned out. And Lampard let club stalwarts and former teammates Gary Cahill and David Luiz move on despite the experience and nous they brought to the Chelsea squad.
These are decisions often forgotten when Lampard’s time as head coach at Stamford Bridge is reflected upon. He wasn’t forced to place his trust in the club’s own, it was a conscious decision and resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Premier League few expected after the 2019/20 campaign began with a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
In the summer of 2020, Lampard again let important figures depart. Willian joined Arsenal on a free transfer. Pedro headed to Roma. Bakayoko, Zappacosta, and Michy Batshuayi were loaned out once more. And with the money from Hazard’s sale not spent and Atletico Madrid paying £50.4million for Alvaro Morata, Chelsea undertook their biggest recruitment drive of the Roman Abramovich era, aided by a depressed transfer market due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In came Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Kai Havertz, Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy. More than £200million was spent. It was a warning to Premier League and European rivals that Chelsea were ready to compete at the top level again, that a squad had been built for success.
SURVEY: Have your say on the next Chelsea owners as buyer decision to be made by Raine Group
Lampard wasn’t the man to deliver that, however. Chelsea started the 2020/21 campaign well but the side’s form collapsed in December and by the end of January, Lampard was gone. Several coaches were considered to replace the Chelsea legend but Thomas Tuchel was eventually settled upon. It’s a decision that paid off – and then some. Within six months, Chelsea were crowned European champions for a second time, beating Real Madrid emphatically en-route to the final. The UEFA Super Cup followed in August. The Club World Cup was delivered in February. And there is an opportunity for further silverware this season.
Chelsea are into the semi-finals of the FA Cup – where they will face Crystal Palace – and the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The Blues opponents? Real Madrid. It is a salivating tie. “Tough one,” Tuchel said after the last-eight draw was made last week. “The challenge cannot be much higher than playing the second leg in Bernabeu with spectators. It’s a big challenge, but it’s also a big excitement around this match, around this fixture. So we know what’s coming and it will be an exciting match and a tough challenge.”
Real Madrid booked their place in the quarter-finals with a dramatic victory over Paris Saint-Germain. But Hazard played just eight minutes over two legs and is unlikely to start when he returns to Stamford Bridge with Los Blancos in two weeks’ time. It is a sign of how much his stock has fallen.
Hazard’s dream move to Real has turned into a nightmare. There have been countless injury issues, unfair criticism, and disappointing form. He is no longer the player that dazzled at Stamford Bridge and won the hearts of supporters and rival fans alike. Chelsea got out of their relationship at the right time.
The £130million received for Hazard proved crucial for Chelsea’s rebuild. Without it, there is perhaps no Chilwell. No Havertz. No Mendy. No Champions League crown. Maybe even no Tuchel. The Blues have Real Madrid’s largess to thank, for it was they who pushed down the first domino on Chelsea’s journey to becoming world champions.
GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings