Chelsea’s Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard. PHOTO: Glyn KIRK / AFP
Frustrated by his past failures, Chelsea star Eden Hazard has been urged to finally stamp his mark on the Champions League.
While Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar have cemented their legendary status with headline-stealing performances in Europe’s elite club competition, Hazard remains one of the tournament’s biggest enigmas.
Hazard’s quality is without question and the Belgian midfielder has been shortlisted for the 2017 Ballon d’Or award after playing a key role in Chelsea’s Premier League title triumph last season.
But despite tormenting defenders in domestic competitions, since Hazard made his Champions League debut with Lille in 2011, the game’s grandest stage has seen frustratingly few glimpses of that exquisite talent.
With that in mind, Chelsea’s clash with Roma on Wednesday offers Hazard a chance to change the narrative.
Aware that Hazard is now in his prime years, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has issued a public challenge to a player sometimes known for letting his diffident personality have a negative effect on his performances.
“I think last season Eden played a really important season. He played very well and was really important for us to win the league,” Conte said.
“For us he showed in every game great talent and to be a really good player. This competition is very important for him and for the team.
“This competition brings you on another level and I think he has all the possibility to do this. He is a top player. I think it is the right moment.”
Hazard’s maiden Champions League voyage ended with the youngster failing to score a single goal as Lille bowed out at the group stage.
Yet, convinced of Hazard’s potential, Chelsea signed him just weeks after they won the Champions League in 2012.
However, Hazard went goalless in Europe that season as Chelsea were embarrassingly eliminated at the group stage.
Hazard netted his first Champions League goal against Schalke in 2013 and had one of his more influential campaigns, with Chelsea reaching the semi-finals.
That proved a false dawn as disappointing last-16 exits to Paris Saint-Germain in 2015 and 2016 featured more underwhelming efforts from the Belgian.
Conte made his plea for more urgency from Hazard as Chelsea look to recover after their Premier League title defence was dented by successive defeats to Manchester City and Crystal Palace.
Significantly, Hazard has been unable to replicate last season’s mesmerising form as he struggles to rediscover his sharpness following an ankle injury.
The 26-year-old needed surgery in the close-season and has been limited to only four starts for Chelsea in the current campaign.
Hazard has yet to score in eight appearances for Chelsea this term and still looked well short of his peak form when the Blues crashed to a shock 2-1 loss at Palace on Saturday.
Fortunately for Chelsea, Hazard’s slow progress has not hampered their Champions League ambitions.
He was a substitute when Conte’s side crushed Qarabag in their Group C opener before playing 82 minutes of their impressive 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid.
Keen to buy himself time to rediscover his rhythm, Hazard has tried to play down Chelsea supporters’ expectations.
“I missed football for three months and it’s not easy to come back after a big injury but I did,” he said. “I just want to play football. I will miss some games, I will play bad for some games.
“I just want to play and try to bring the best of me.”