Monday, 13 March 2017

Eden Hazard Reckons Antonio Conte Is 'Fantastic'

Eden Hazard

Chelsea have been “on fire” this season, Eden Hazard says, and what is fanning those flames is clear. They are determined to see this one through: win the Premier League, add the FA Cup and re-establish themselves. Get over the trauma of the last campaign. Make good, in fact. “We are Chelsea,” Hazard explains. “We have to be at the top... talk on the pitch, walk on the pitch. And win games.”

The ambition, the desire to succeed is burning – and not just because Chelsea have that human inferno, manager Antonio Conte, on the touchline driving them on, stoking the blaze. “We all have something to prove,” Hazard says.

It is a sunny afternoon at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham and Hazard, the sunniest of players, has just been presented with an award for Premier League Goal of the Month – his superb solo effort against Arsenal in a 3-1 victory. The Belgian has already submitted an entry for this month’s award with his devastating, counter-attack strike last Monday away at West Ham United.

There was also a wonderful, highlights-reel moment in that match when Hazard flicked the ball from an awkward height to N’Golo Kanté off his back. “It was something natural,” he explains. “I did it once before, in France, it’s for the fans.” But Hazard says that with a grin. It was not, really, for the supporters. It was actually the best way for him to execute “a good pass”. “Because if we had lost the ball and conceded a goal then I would have been in trouble with Antonio,” Hazard adds.

And there is an insight as to how the Italian works. “Even if English is not his first language, he talks a lot, to give confidence to the players,” Hazard says. “If you do something different from what he wants, and you do something bad, he will tell you off ... if you do something different, do it well!”

Do it well. Ahead of Chelsea’s FA Cup quarter-final at home against Manchester United on Monday night, Hazard’s lively conversation ranges from last season’s problems – which he immediately raises – to being pain-free and on to his father’s fascination with Conte, as well as why he longer worries about winning the Ballon d’Or. He also discusses how he would give up football for his family and, even, his dream of one day playing for the Belgium national side with his three younger brothers.

To begin, Hazard recalls two moments. The first was at Leicester City in December 2015. He walked off the pitch, much to Jose Mourinho’s evident disgust, and was unable to carry on. His hip was causing him too much discomfort. “I started last season with pain,” Hazard says. “I remember the game at Leicester. It was so painful.” Nevertheless, the forward was accused of not trying.

“When you play a bad game, we lost the game and the manager [Mourinho] was sacked, so everyone was talking in a bad way,” Hazard says. “But you have to deal with it. I deal with it this season, so I am happy.”

It helped that the 26-year-old was eventually allowed to recuperate, that he had a good Euros with his country and that he came back free of discomfort. “We started the season well and, when the whole team is on fire, they give a lot of confidence,” Hazard says.

Eden Hazard

Except Chelsea also suffered two shuddering defeats. It is the second of those, by Arsenal, that he also recalls. “You start thinking, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to do the same as last season’,” Hazard admits. “You know the manager, though, would not let that happen. No. Not like that. He wanted to change something; he changed something. We talked together, and yeah, we said: ‘We don’t want to do the same as last season.’”

Conte changed the system – Chelsea went to the 3-4-3 – and crucially also altered Hazard’s role. “I am more central now,” he says. “I like it when I am in the middle, I am closer to the ball. The manager wants me to pass, to make assists, create chances and I do more because I think the position is more central and I don’t ask all the time for the ball at my feet. To come back after last season – this is completely different. We are back to fighting for the title.”

Does it provide greater motivation? “More motivation because you don’t want to be the same as last season [when Chelsea finished 10th in the Premier League as defending champions]. You want to be better and you know you are a better player, so you know you have to do better. The whole team – it’s not just about my situation – but everyone was in a bad moment. Yes, we all have something to prove.”

Conte has made a difference. “Fantastic manager. He gives the spirit to the team,” Hazard says. “Of course, we have worked a lot and hard. But if that’s the key to winning games, we will work hard. For me, it is a privilege to play with this manager, and I hope we can achieve something together.

“Sometimes in the dressing room he says some words just to you, personally, and then you think ‘Yes, it’s true’. So you have to do something in the game. Like, for example, against West Ham I missed two [training] sessions during the week, and he told me: ‘OK, this week you didn’t run, but on the pitch, do something.’ And I scored, so he was happy. Sometimes some words can make the difference.”

What of his touchline behaviour? “I saw a lot – but not in the moment of the game,” Hazard says, laughing. “It is incredible. Sometimes on the pitch you don’t see the manager. You hear him – for sure! Of course. When my family came to one of the games, I think my dad looked at him [Conte] more than on the pitch. Because it’s funny. But his attitude is like this – he was a great player, now he is a manager, he has the same spirit. That’s him, that’s Antonio Conte.”

Chelsea are 10 points clear in the table with 11 games to go. “But you saw what happened in the Camp Nou, Barcelona,” Hazard says, recalling last Wednesday’s amazing Champions League reversal when Paris St-Germain surrendered a four-goal lead. “I think if we don’t win the title this season it’s something like PSG; the same feeling. Because, you know, you win 4-0 at home and then you think that you can go through. If we don’t win the title this season it will be something of the same feeling because we have the opportunity to win so we have to. But don’t think too early about the title, think game after game.”

And the Double? “One month ago I told people that I thought United will be the best team in the second half of the season,” Hazard says. “Because they started slow, and then they have great players, a great manager, and they know what to do. OK, sometimes at home, they have lost some games or drawn, but they are in a good form. They had a long trip [to Rostov in Russia in the Europa League]. I expect a good game from them. They want revenge because we won at home 4-0 [in the league, in October].”

And what does the FA Cup mean to him? “I never won it so I want to win it. It’s the oldest cup so I know for the fans it’s really important, for the players also because in the last 10 years Chelsea have won it four times.

“So now it’s in the minds of the fans that something can happen. So we have to win this cup.”

With three young boys – the eldest is just six – Hazard is fiercely protective of family life. “Football is good but family, close friends, my brothers, I have family everywhere, is the most important thing,” he says.

“If you told me to choose between family and football then it is no choice. I take family, of course, like everyone. But I prefer to keep it private and that’s it. I just focus on the football.

“When the game is finished, it’s completely finished. I’m with my kids. Sometimes people say to me ‘Oh, did you see the game?’ and I say ‘No, I didn’t see the game’. I watch if my friends are playing or my brothers. But not always. No, my kids now, the big one is six, another one four, they start to play so I am with them and they want to play if I start to watch TV. They tell me: ‘Come on, play in the garden.’ They watch more football than me. And they play everywhere, even inside the house, like I did as a kid.”

Hazard’s youngest brother, Ethan, is still a kid, at 14, and in Belgium. “He’s playing football but not at a big level. Thorgan is in Germany [with Borussia Mönchengladbach]. Kylian is in Budapest. Ujpest.

“My dream is to play with all my brothers all in the same team, in the national team. I’ve played with Thorgan once in the national team so far. I hope Kylian will play some games.”

For now Hazard is only “thinking in the present”. “In 10 years if I don’t win the World Cup or the Euros or the Champions League and I make a great career then, for me, that’s no problem,” he says.

“I’m not focused just on titles – I need to win; I have to win. If I win then good but if everyone is talking about me as a great man, a great player then I will be happy.

Even when I was a kid I was talking about winning the Ballon d’Or. OK, it’s one dream but if not then no problem.”



Etiam at libero iaculis, mollis justo non, blandit augue. Vestibulum sit amet sodales est, a lacinia ex. Suspendisse vel enim sagittis, volutpat sem eget, condimentum sem.