With the 2021-22 Premier League season kicking off in two weeks, more and more pundits have placed their bets on the top four and there seems to be a familiar pattern.
It is advantage Tottenham in the two-legged Carabao Cup semi-final, with Spurs overcoming a spirited Chelsea side 1-0.
The Blues will feel encouraged for the second leg, yet there are serious signs they may be wasting Eden Hazard’s prime.
For the first time since 1963 Tottenham have won three on the bounce against their London rivals, pointing to a power shift in the capital.
A crowd of 44,000 witnessed a feisty encounter at Wembley, with Spurs performing admirably in defence against a Chelsea side unwilling to surrender. Yet for a club of Chelsea’s stature, grit and desire are nowhere near enough.
Blues manager Maurizio Sarri opted to play his Belgian wizard in a false nine position, flanked either side by starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi and Willian Borges da Silva. Despite his undoubted ability, Hazard is not a natural striker, nor should he be. His lightning-fast feet and rocket of a right foot are far better suited to playing out wide.
In February Hazard himself admitted as much, saying, “I prefer to play [out wide]. But it’s the manager who has the final word. On the wing I feel more comfortable. That’s my place”.
It is his place indeed. Remember why Chelsea were at Wembley in the first place.
Hazard’s outrageous winner against Liverpool in September should serve as a potent rebuke to anyone who questions the winger’s rightful position. Receiving the ball on the right, Hazard slalomed some 20 yards, fooling two Liverpool defenders before blasting an unstoppable strike into the Liverpool net.
Against Tottenham under the burning semi-final lights Hazard cut a lonely figure up top. Unable to have a decisive impact on the match, the Belgian somehow had the most successful dribbles and key passes. This says a lot about where Chelsea are at right now.
Hudson-Odoi scared the life out of the Spurs backline with his guile and directness, yet he may be off to Bayern Munich for £35 million (A$62 million). Positivity amidst looming uncertainty. Perhaps a broader metaphor for the 2016-17 champions.
The perpetually imminent exit of Chelsea’s star man was fuelled in the aftermath of yesterday’s match by former England midfielder Jermaine Jenas.
“I think he is too good for Chelsea,” said Jenas. “Chelsea are obviously a top, top side, but I think he has outgrown them. I think he has outgrown his position within that team.”
The Belgian has long been linked with a move to Real Madrid and as recently as October said, “Real Madrid is the best club in the world. I don’t want to lie, it is my dream since I was a kid.”
Ex-Tottenham star Luka Modric left for Spain at a similar age to Chelsea’s No.10. The now Ballon d’Or winner has excelled since departing London for Madrid. Jenas believes the time has come for Hazard to do the same. “He needs to move on. He is above a level of everybody else that is around him.”
Speak of those around him and Sarri has two lamp post, I mean striking, options: Olivier Giroud and the hopelessly misfiring Alvaro Morata.
Within the Premier League this season Chelsea have scored 38 goals, with Hazard contributing to 19 of those himself through ten goals and nine assists. In contrast, Giroud and Morata have contributed 13 combined.
Chelsea’s desperation to fix this problem reeks of panic usually reserved for relegation-threatened sides. English reports today hint at a possible £50 million (A$89 million) bid for Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson.
You can almost hear the sniggering from top-six rivals. Oh, how Chelsea fans must wish for Diego Costa back.
For those screaming hyperbole, take a look at Chelsea’s last visit to England’s national stadium. A 3-1 battering at the hands of Spurs. The Blues astonishingly managed just two shots on target for the game’s entirety.
Looking for more recent examples? Take the home loss to Leicester in December or the 0-0 draw against a weakened Southampton seven days ago. This is a side far off the recent heights of Antonio Conte’s title-winning side or even Jose Mourinho’s 2014-15 champions.
Indeed Chelsea started off the season in blistering form and find themselves fourth in the Premier League standings. Currently they are only two goals away from a League Cup final.
Alas, they must not fall for the same illusions those at Old Trafford did. A trophy which sees most Premier League sides play their reserves cannot satisfy the burning ambition of a particular Belgian or a club typically ruled by ruthlessness.
This side remains ten points off leaders Liverpool and remain light-years away from the trophy-laden teams that travelled to Merseyside for their annual Champions League semi-finals.
Remove Eden Hazard and this is an 11 mightily struggling for honours of any kind. Roman Abramovich and company must act quickly before this becomes a very real nightmare.