Eden Hazard is the best player in the Premier League right now, for the second season out of three, and if there is any player at any English club worth being scared of then it is him. But here at Stamford Bridge Jose Mourinho was so scared of Hazard that he ripped up his plans to deal with him. The United players fed off that fear, responded by kicking Hazard, costing them the match.
It was a moment that showed the power and the authority that comes with being about to seal a second Premier League in three years. Or a second Footballer of the Year trophy, if he does manage to squeeze out N’Golo Kante in the vote. Alexis Sanchez, Kevin De Bruyne and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have had their moments this year but Hazard, it is clear now, is at the top of the pile, and it is not even close.
That, in short, is why Mourinho abandoned his trusted 4-2-3-1 system for an obscure 6-3-1 that made them look more like a Tony Pulis team than one managed by a double Champions League winner. Mourinho, more than anyone, knows how dangerous Hazard is when he comes deep, picks up the ball, spins and runs, which is why he had Phil Jones, on the right of the tight back four, trying to follow Hazard all over the pitch.
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But it did not matter what Jones had planned for Hazard, nor the nominal two-man shield of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera. Because no United player could lay a finger on Hazard, or at least, not legally, and it was that imbalance of skill that swung the game for Chelsea.
From Chelsea’s first good move, Hazard came deep for the ball, spun Chris Smalling, skipped past Marcos Rojo, and hit a shot deflected just wide. That was the warning and United knew they were in trouble.
Hazard got a shoulder in the face from Ander Herrera, and the next time he was clattered, Mourinho jumped up demanding he be booked for simulation. It was the reaction of a man desperate to see the player unsettled.
One of Hazard’s great qualities, especially in the last few years, is his physical bravery, his resilience, his resistance to getting kicked all over the pitch. He has said that he enjoys it, not for the masochism, but for the clear message that he is an important part of the game, a puzzle his opponents cannot solve. If the more he is kicked, the better he is playing, this was his best performance of the season. Even if it did not have a signature moment like his solo masterpiece against Arsenal.
Back up on his feet, Hazard skipped past Jones so Jones went through him from behind. Michael Oliver told the United players to lay off Hazard so when Herrera tripped him, the second yellow card should be no surprise.
United had already come here with a plan that negated their chances of scoring a goal and when they were reduced to 10 Mourinho was not exactly going to open up. They became more compact, more reactive, and defended for the rest of the night from their own penalty area. It was attack against defence to an extent rarely seen between two big sides.
Even though it was N’Golo Kante who scored the only goal, it was Hazard who won Chelsea this game. He was the man who forced United into their new system, because Mourinho was not confident of stopping him with his usual plan. He was the man who forced United into fouling him, reducing them down to 10 men, ending their chances.
Hazard is a reliable contributor of goals and assists and is sure to finish this season with even more than he bagged in 2014-15. But there is more to him even than that. He now has the charisma, the aura, the presence, that defines a top player at the peak of his game. And here at Stamford Bridge United and Mourinho, the biggest names in the game, were blinded by it. They used to have an aura of their own, but for all their money and prestige, they do not scare opponents like that anymore.