Eden Hazard and the 20 Most Exciting Wingers in World Football
Chelsea's Eden Hazard turns 24 today (Jan. 7), and while we're sure you join us in wishing the Belgian many happy returns, this is also a good time to consider his standing in the modern game.
There is little doubt that Hazard has been one of the shining lights in the Premier League this season as Jose Mourinho's side have led the way, but how does he stack up to the other exciting wide men in world football?
Let's take a look at just who he's up against.
But First... What Is a Winger These Days?
In times gone by when everyone played 4-4-2, jumpers were used for goalposts and Twitter was just a thing that birds did, it was easy to identify who were wingers and who weren't.
Even as recently as the 1990s you'd see the likes of Ryan Giggs, Steve McManaman and David Ginola as out-and-out wingers, but given the changes both in formations and players' roles within them, we have an awful lot of grey areas now.
These days a winger should perhaps be regarded as someone who can play wide of a front three, a traditional midfield four and maybe even wing-back, but the flexibility of formations means that you can often see an unbalanced team with players performing different roles on opposing flanks.
Take Real Madrid, for example. On paper their best formation would include Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale lining up from left to right in a front three, but does that make Ronaldo and Bale both wingers? Or are they both forwards? Or is one a winger and one a forward?
We're going to include Ronaldo in this list even though he is ostensibly a forward (as are Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and a number of others whose principle job is to score goals but who can also play wide), and we are going to include Bale, whom you think of primarily as a winger.
Confused? You shouldn't be. Here's Hazard and 19 others who get us up off our feet when playing out wide.
There is no doubting the best position of Bayern Munich's flying Dutchman Arjen Robben, who is able to cut in from wide positions, usually on the right, with ease and score goal after goal with his trusty left foot.
The 2010 World Cup finalist and 2013 Champions League winner must have scored the same type of goal on countless occasions by now, but there is always a confused left-back who doesn't know how to stop him.
Having suffered the devastating blow of missing what turned out to be a successful World Cup campaign for Germany, winger Marco Reus has now had to contend with yet more injury problems and Borussia Dortmund's horrendous Bundesliga form this season.
Despite the setbacks, he remains one of the hottest properties in European football right now and a player who is being closely watched by several European heavyweights ahead of a potential transfer.
Angel Di Maria
The most expensive player in British football, Argentina's Angel Di Maria hasn't disappointed in his first season at Manchester United following his whirlwind transfer from Real Madrid.
The odd injury has occasionally set him back, but when he's in full flow, the 26-year-old is one of the most gifted attackers in world football, with many still wondering just why Real were so keen to lose a player who was a key ingredient of their 2014 Champions League success.
A player gifted enough to cause damage wherever he plays on the pitch, Brazil icon and Barcelona superstar Neymar is surely best when running at defenders from a wide position.
That was what we saw for his country at the World Cup, anyway, and had the Brazilians had a forward who was capable of matching their No. 10 for quality and work rate, they could have ended up victorious.
As he constantly proves, though, there is only one Neymar.
Is Alexis Sanchez a winger? He probably wouldn't want to be described as one, but given the Chilean's immense talent and the impact he's had on Arsenal during his short time at the club, he can pretty much be anything he wants to be.
Fast and dynamic, Sanchez has taken the Premier League by storm during his first season in England, so much so that Arsenal must wonder just where they'd be without him.
Colombia's run to the World Cup quarter-finals last year wasn't all about James Rodriguez (who has become more of a central player and so isn't considered here), as they also had Juan Cuadrado on the wing.
The Fiorentina man scored a penalty in the 4-1 win over Japan in the group stages, but more impressively he registered four assists to tie with Toni Kroos for the most at the tournament. Fiorentina have done well to hang on to him for this season, during which he's scored four goals.
Although stationed as both a No. 10 and central striker by Liverpool in recent months, 20-year-old Raheem Sterling does a lot of his good work in wide areas and is likely to return to a wider berth once the Reds finally get Daniel Sturridge back fit.
Having burst onto the scene with England and impressed during their dismal World Cup campaign, Sterling looks set to be around the international scene for the next decade, and Liverpool will hope that he stays at Anfield for that long, too.
Like Sterling, another young talent capable of getting crowds on their feet is Germany and Schalke wide man Julian Draxler.
A member of the victorious German World Cup squad, Draxler played the final 14 minutes of the famous 7-1 semi-final victory over Brazil but looks set to have a much more lasting impact on both international and club football in the years to come.
One of the very few genuine wingers on our list, Jesus Navas' game is all about widening the pitch and creating scoring opportunities for his Manchester City team-mates.
The Spaniard was part of his nation's squads that won both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, while he won both the Premier League and League Cup with City last season, scoring in the Wembley final of the latter with what was an all-too-rare goal against Sunderland.
Mercurial Frenchman Franck Ribery had a great 2013, for which he was rewarded with a place on the three-man Ballon d'Or shortlist following Bayern Munich's Champions League win.
Things didn't go quite as well for him in 2014, with a thigh injury ruling him out of the World Cup and leading to a somewhat hasty retirement from international football. On his day, though, the 31-year-old remains a terrific talent and one of the best wide men in the game.
Never the first name that comes to mind when you think of Barcelona's galaxy of stars, wide man Pedro Rodriguez has nonetheless been a loyal servant to the club and is always a willing runner on either flank.
The 27-year-old made his Barca debut in the 2007/08 season and has gone on to score 94 goals for them in all competitions as he's racked up plenty of trophies, while he was also a member of the Spain squads that won both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Thomas Muller isn't really a winger, we all know that, but the German hotshot's effectiveness in wide areas makes him a must for our list.
There were few more deserving of the summer's World Cup success than the Bayern Munich and Germany star, who now has 26 international goals in 62 appearances, including eight strikes at World Cup tournaments.
After a less-than-stellar start to life at Atletico Madrid, things have suddenly started to take a turn for the better for former Real Sociedad wide man Antoine Griezmann.
The Frenchman scored a hat-trick away at Athletic Bilbao just before the international break and then showed that he hadn't lost any of his powers over Christmas by netting twice in a 3-1 win over Levante in Atletico's first match of 2015. It looks as though it's going to be a good year for him.
A player who was in terrific goalscoring form earlier in the season, when he at one point managed seven strikes in nine games, Spanish international Jose Callejon has flourished ever since he swapped Real Madrid for Rafael Benitez's Napoli in the summer of 2013.
He hit the net 17 times in all competitions last season and was the top scorer as the Naples outfit won the Italian Cup.
A player who would certainly be getting more game time were he at a less star-studded club, Bayern Munich's Xherdan Shaqiri is a little bundle of energy who can bring several qualities to any club lucky to have him.
Liverpool and Inter Milan both hope to be that club, according to Simon Jones of the Daily Mail, and the former FC Basel man would appear set to sign for one of them as his time at Bayern comes to an end.
Is Germany World Cup hero Mario Gotze really a winger? As with so many of our players listed here, it is difficult to nail him down to one position, but that is only because he operates with a rare talent in so many of them.
The 22-year-old Bayern Munich star will forever be remembered for one magical moment in the Maracana, but he has got so much more to offer in his career and looks destined to be at the top of the game for many years.
Injury has disrupted Mesut Ozil's second season in English football with Arsenal, and although he hasn't quite made the impact that many expected him to during his time with the Gunners, there is little doubt that he is still a quality player.
Hopefully he can regain some form and fitness in the new year, both for his own and Arsenal's sake.
The hot favourite to win the 2014 Ballon d'Or next week, there is little you can say about the genius of Cristiano Ronaldo that hasn't already been said.
Something of an era-defining player, Ronaldo started out as a conventional winger at Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United, but now firmly stationed as one of Real Madrid's three forwards, he has become the reference point for how this role is viewed. Simply put, he is something of a phenomenon.
The world's most expensive player, Gareth Bale is capable of explosive moments that simply blow away whichever opposition is unlucky enough to come up against him.
The Welshman underwent a remarkable transformation from meek left-back to world-class winger while at Tottenham Hotspur, and he's taken that form on to the Bernabeu stage, where he helped Real Madrid to Champions League and Copa del Rey glory in his first season at the club, scoring in both finals.
Birthday boy Eden Hazard has been one of the standout players of this Premier League season and seems determined to take his game to higher levels week after week.
After a disappointing World Cup experience with Belgium, where he was unable to truly express himself in a somewhat functional team, the 24-year-old has quickly got back to doing what he does best: terrorising opposition defences on his way to scoring 11 goals in all competitions this season.