On Saturday, Eden Hazard came off the bench against Elche and played the final 15 minutes, a welcome return after a six-week absence. Monday came depressingly familiar news: He is likely to be out for another six weeks, this time after straining his psoas muscle, which controls the lifting of the upper leg. Hazard joined Real Madrid in the summer of 2019 for an initial fee of $124 million. Since then, he has played from start to finish in just four matches for the club, all last season.
For at least three years before he left Chelsea, the sense was that Hazard needed to move if he were really to be fulfilled. Everybody could see his talent, but there was a feeling that he needed to join one of the continental giants if he were to win a Champions League title or perhaps even join the scrap to ascend to the podium Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are slowly vacating.
The problem was that Hazard is not as driven as most footballers by money or by medals. He was happy in London with his family. He didn’t want to leave. That’s not to suggest he’s lazy, but in a world in which so many are fueled by an almost sociopathic need to achieve, he perhaps lacked a certain hunger.
Rafa Benítez, when he was Chelsea manager, became infuriated by Hazard’s related reluctance to track back. José Mourinho enjoyed a rocky relationship with the Belgian, whom he kept trying to rattle into greater effort. Although there were definitely periods of froideur, Hazard messaged Mourinho with an apology after he was sacked. Maurizio Sarri, a coach who demands his forwards press, was the only one who finally gave the green light for him to go, signing Christian Pulisic as a replacement—although he was himself sacked before the switch happened.
And as so often with players who struggle with injuries, there is a critical undercurrent to much of the comment. Hazard limped off of the 2–0 defeat to Leicester that proved to be Mourinho’s last game in charge of Chelsea. "I don’t know what is wrong," Mourinho said immediately after that game, his tone making his meaning clear. “The only thing I know is that within 10 seconds he made the decision himself. He came off and said straight away he couldn’t do it. Then he tried and immediately he came back off. He made the decision to come off. So it must be a serious injury."
There was an echo of that in Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane’s comments after this latest setback. “There are things I cannot explain,” he said. “Like always, I try to stay positive and hope it will be a little thing. Something is happening. He is a player who was never injured in his career. We are trying to find out what is happening with the injured players, there are things that happen in football. We have spoken about the preseason, about the number of games, and things up here in the head as well, which influences a lot.”
Zidane is right: The hip injuries in 2015–16 were an aberration, and even that season Hazard ended up playing 25 league games. And his comments about injuries being “in the head” were not directed specifically at Hazard; in this truncated season a lot of clubs have struggled to keep players fit. But there’s a serious danger now that Hazard becomes for Zidane another Gareth Bale, a player he simply cannot rely upon, a situation made more pressing by the fact that Bale, currently on loan at Tottenham, and Hazard are the highest-paid players at the club. Hazard has just four goals in 36 matches in all competitions across two snakebitten seasons.
It’s a sign of how badly the post–Cristiano Ronaldo succession plan has gone that the 36-year-old Portugal international has been linked with a return to the club, despite his increasingly static performances for Juventus in the Champions League. As the pandemic hammers football club finances, Bale and Hazard, who respectively and reportedly earn $900,000 and $580,000 a week, present a major problem for Madrid, but it’s not one likely to be solved by re-signing a player with no resale value who is currently on a reported $165 million a year.
For Hazard, meanwhile, there can only be sympathy. After seven years at Chelsea, this was supposed to be his final push to greatness. It has instead become a nightmare. And as the doubters wonder whether he is somehow unwilling really to push himself through pain, there is perhaps another lesson to be drawn. Feeling comfortable and being happy with your family where you are maybe isn’t such a bad thing.