Chelsea’s No.9 shirt has become something of a poisoned chalice in recent years, with holders of the shirt often struggling to fit in or make an impact at Stamford Bridge.
The reportedly imminent departure of great Chelsea talisman Eden Hazard to Real Madrid would be right up there in price and significance with Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2009 switch and Gareth Bale 2013 defections.
In what has consistently been one of the biggest talking points since last year’s World Cup, not only could Chelsea be losing its best player, but the Premier League may be losing perhaps its greatest name, and once again in his prime.
It appears only a matter of time before the Belgian superstar dons the famous colours of Los Blancos as Florentino Perez seeks to mastermind another Galacticos revolution after a dreadful domestic and European campaign.
Thus here are five realistic replacements to help cover the formidable void that would be left by Hazard.
1. Lorenzo Insigne
The Italian international has been a key cog in Napoli’s resurgence as a domestic force under Walter Mazzarri, Rafa Benitez and of course Maurizio Sarri in recent years. Assuming the current Chelsea manager retains his job next season, Insigne would slot seamlessly into the left of Sarri’s preferred 4-3-3.
Diminutive, explosive and a terrific dribbler, the comparisons with Hazard in physique and style are clear. In terms of a like-for-like replacement in this regard, there are few options that would be more financially feasible and tactically suitable.
Another positive is that Insigne would not break the bank to purchase, thus the rest of the proceeds of Eden Hazard’s transfer fee could be reinvested into other parts of the squad. Given the reputation of Napoli being a selling club as well as the familiar Italian back-room staff, the transition to English football and the execution of Sarri’s footballing philosophy will be made all the more smooth.
The only questions would surround Insigne’s ability to adapt to the renowned physicality and pace of the Premier League as well as the time needed for the cultural acclimatisation to England. There is also the important matter of having taken over from Marek Hamsik as the Napoli captain in February, which could be hard to relinquish for a player who has shown admirable loyalty and tenure over the last decade.
2. Gareth Bale
The Real Madrid winger has won the European Cup more times in the Welshman’s nearly six years at Santiago Bernabeu than Chelsea has in its 114-year existence. That would mean that for any chance of Gareth Bale wearing the royal blue, Chelsea would have to at the very minimum qualify for the Champions League. The very reason Bale left Tottenham was to play with the very best and against the very best, and although Chelsea no longer have the very best players in their ranks, the Champions League could be the trump card to make the transfer happen.
Such a move would allow Chelsea to acquire the services of a player whose devastating qualities have already been on show in the Premier League, whether it is his dipping freekicks, electrifying pace or outstanding delivery. More importantly, the former Spurs man has demonstrated the ability to rise to the occasion and take on a talismanic role for Wales, which was never more evident than at Euro 2016 when leading the Welsh spectacularly to the semi-finals.
Those qualities will have to be more prevalent than ever f replacing the likes of Eden Hazard, when much of the creative inspiration and burden will be heavily dependent on one key individual.
With Los Blancos looking to rebuild in the summer and given Bale’s testy relationship with the Bernabeu faithful, the transfer doesn’t look as implausible this summer as years gone by. However, Bale’s injury record and the sense that his powers are on the wane given he will be turning 30 in July don’t bode well if a team is looking to build a team around Bale.
Something to also consider is, despite Real Madrid’s possible desire to sell and Chelsea’s willingness to buy, the player himself may not be keen on a move that could be perceived as a step backwards, even if any move away from the Bernabeu would appear so.
3. Wilfried Zaha
The former Manchester United wideman has turned his career around in recent years at Selhurst Park and is now widely considered not only Crystal Palace’s best player but an indispensable part of Roy Hodgson’s tactical set-up. So great has his threat been in recent seasons that the Ivory Coast international has been used many a time as a lone frontman, with his pace, power and industry making him a formidable threat when Christian Benteke’s poor form necessitates alternatives up front.
Zaha may not be the household name that immediately comes to mind when looking to find a replacement for a player of the calibre of Eden Hazard, but there is no doubting the consistent threat posed by a player who is not only improving his product each season but also a barometer for Crystal Palace as both attacker and leader. What Zaha may lack in guile and artistry he more than makes up for in explosive pace and physicality, with his leggy dexterity and directness on the ball making him a constant menace.
There are questions about his temperament and mentality in delivering on the biggest of stages for a top-six team, as the disastrous spell at Old Trafford attests to. However, it can be argued strongly that Zaha is now a vastly more experienced and well-rounded player who deserves another chance at a big club given the quality and consistency that has been demonstrated at Crystal Palace for a considerable period of time now. If he adds more goals to his game, which he should if he dovetails with greater quality around him, he can take his game to an elite level and end up being a bargain purchase.
4. Philippe Coutinho
The former Liverpool fan favourite has not had the greatest of times at Barcelona, with a combination of injuries and indifferent form compounding his woes. With Barcelona possibly looking to offload players to fund a rebuild of their own in the summer, the Brazilian may well end up being on the Catalan giant’s transfer list given his valuation and struggles in Spanish football. This could open the door for Chelsea to pounce on a proven Premier League player who is capable of providing the incision, creativity and goal threat akin to Eden Hazard.
Chelsea will have sufficient funds once Hazard’s transfer goes through, so money will not determine the outcome of this transfer. However, when assessing the probability of success at Stamford Bridge, Sarri’s system may be an impediment to any success given Coutinho generally is at his best as a No. 10, and no such role is available in a 4-3-3. Coutinho doesn’t have the pace and dynamism that Sarri tends to prefer in his wingers, and it may well take a deeper role in the midfield three to get the best out of his vision, passing and shooting.
With the recent departure of Cesc Fabregas and a dearth of creativity in Chelsea’s midfield, Coutinho’s arrival could be the tonic to recalibrate the midfield alongside N’golo Kante’s bustling energy and Jorginho as the deep pivot. Whether the Brazilian himself is open to such a move will come down to his ambition and heart – Chelsea are no Manchester City or Liverpool from a competitive standpoint, and even though they are also not a Manchester United or Everton, the affinity with Liverpool means joining a domestic rival will take strong character.
5. Paulo Dybala
Prising the Argentinian forward away from Juventus will be the most difficult task of the possibilities on this list given Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic’s advancing years and the fact Dybala is one of the select few footballers in the world – along with the likes of Neymar, Eden Hazard, Kylian Mbappe and Mohammad Salah – who are destined to challenge for the Ballon d’Or in the coming years once Lionel Messi and Ronaldo’s careers start to wind down.
Supremely gifted and versatile, Dybala is the only footballer on this list who can genuinely lay claim to being the more complete attacker than Eden Hazard. Whether playing wide or as a supporting striker, lone striker or in a free role, the Argentinian’s enviable blend of craft and guile as a creative force as well as his lethal instincts in the box as a potent finisher are genuinely Messiesque in style and execution.
Given his versatility, the Juventus man would have no problems settling in either flank of the front three or even as the main striker in the mould of Maurizio Sarri’s greatest masterstroke, Dries Mertens. Whether it is creating midfield overloads by collecting the ball in deeper positions to drive at defences or fooling defences with intelligent runs into the channels to bring teammates into play, Dybala possesses all the attributes necessary to take Chelsea to the next level.
It is anyone’s guess how much the Italian champion would demand as a transfer fee, but there is no denying that even as a speculative option in the market Paulo Dybala is not just merely an Eden Hazard replacement but a statement signing who could transform the fortunes of Chelsea’s post-Diego Costa malaise up front.