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Eden Hazard irrepressible on his Chelsea return against Newcastle
Eden Hazard scored in Chelsea's 2-1 win over Newcastle
Last Updated: 27/08/18 10:04am
Eden Hazard was targeted for rough treatment by Newcastle on Super Sunday, but he shrugged it off to play a key role in Chelsea's 2-1 win. It bodes well for his future - and Chelsea's - under Maurizio Sarri…
"Two-hundred per cent ready." That was how Eden Hazard described himself shortly before Chelsea's meeting with Newcastle. The Belgian has been carefully managed by Maurizio Sarri following his World Cup exploits, appearing only as a substitute in their first two games, but he was true to his word on his first start of the season at St James' Park.
Sarri had said Hazard was only fit enough for "50 or 60 minutes" in his pre-match press conference, but it is a measure of his influence that he ended up completing the 90. Newcastle were set up to frustrate - ceding possession and piling men behind the ball - but Hazard was a constant threat, capping a man-of-the-match display by dispatching Chelsea's controversial penalty.
There were no signs of rustiness - only the usual intent and imagination on the ball and determination off it. Hazard was targeted by Newcastle from the start, with Matt Ritchie raking his studs down the back of his leg inside the first minute, but he did not hide. Instead, he kept showing for the ball; kept trying to make things happen.
Hazard relished the freedom to drift across Chelsea's front line. He popped up in both wide and central positions, and showed his usual quick feet and close control in tight situations. On the hour-mark, he flashed a low shot wide. Soon after that he teed up Pedro for an excellent chance following another mazy dribble from the left.
Hazard almost put Chelsea in front with another dazzling moment shortly before the break, dummying a pass for N'Golo Kante on the edge of Newcastle's box before collecting the Frenchman's return ball and skipping past goalkeeper Martin Dubravka - only to be crowded out before he could direct a shot at goal.
Newcastle dropped even deeper after the break, completing just 94 passes to Chelsea's 469, but the visitors continued to rely on Hazard's ingenuity to create chances. In the 50th minute, it was him who switched the play from left to right, giving Cesar Azpilicueta the space to test Dubravka. It was not the only occasion his vision stretched Newcastle's stubborn defence.
Hazard showed his frustration when he screamed in anger having been beaten to the ball in Newcastle's box midway through the second half, but he kept his cool when it mattered after Fabian Schar was adjudged to have brought down Marcos Alonso soon afterwards. Dubravka guessed correctly, but Hazard's penalty was too forcefully struck.
There was late drama after that, with Chelsea requiring a DeAndre Yedlin own goal after Joselu's equaliser, but from Hazard's perspective, the game was a continuation of his eye-catching substitute appearances against Huddersfield and Arsenal, when he provided assists for Pedro and Alonso respectively. "I think he played very well," was Sarri's assessment.
The early signs suggests he could thrive under the new head coach. Sarri has overhauled Chelsea's style since replacing Antonio Conte, with Chelsea averaging 69 per cent possession in their first three games compared to 55 per cent last season. For Hazard, a player at his best when unburdened by defensive responsibility, the attacking emphasis is good news.
"We have great players and we want the ball," Hazard told Sky Sports after the game. "I'm that kind of player who likes the ball at my feet, so I can be happy."
He certainly seems to be enjoying himself. The headline statistic is that Hazard has contributed a goal and two assists in just 133 minutes of Premier League action this season, but a deeper look at the numbers throws up more cause for encouragement.
In the early stages of the new campaign, the Belgian is averaging considerably more touches, more chances created and more shots per 90 minutes than he did last season. Against Newcastle, he touched the ball 40 times more than in any game in Conte's final year in charge.
It bodes well for what's to come. The introduction of 'Sarri-ball' has yielded three wins from three games, and it's already clear that Hazard will be central to it. Sarri has introduced him gradually, but Hazard is still Chelsea's main man. There can be no doubting now that he is ready to show it.
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