Eden Hazard's Real Madrid Brace Shows He Can Be Chelsea's 2nd Striker

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2016

Real Madrid goalkeeper Rubén Yáñez (31) defends against Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard in the second half of an International Champions Cup soccer match, Saturday, July 30, 2016, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Real Madrid won 3-1. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Associated Press

It was only half-time, but Antonio Conte would have been covering his eyes against Real Madrid through fear of how bad it could get for Chelsea.

Over 105,000 fans had turned up at Michigan Stadium to watch his side take on the European champions, and Chelsea were being picked off ruthlessly. It was getting ugly.

All their good pre-season work up to that point was seemingly going out the window. It was only a friendly, but the Blues looked a familiar sight. They looked like the team that had failed so miserably last season.

We thought Conte's arrival was ending all that. Nonetheless, second-best in those opening 45 minutes, it was painful to watch as Marcelo bagged a brace and Mariano's wonder strike put Real 3-0 up with just 37 minutes on the clock.

What was the manager going to do? Some big changes were the answer, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Willian hooked at the interval, replaced by Michy Batshuayi and Juan Cuadrado.

TONY DING/Associated Press

The significant move was Victor Moses for Bertrand Traore after 75 minutes, however. Why? Not because Moses did anything exceptional, but because his introduction moved Eden Hazard—who had come on 10 minutes earlier for Pedro—into a more central area alongside Batshuayi.

Regardless of the Real Madrid personnel on the pitch at that time, it changed the game for Chelsea. It maybe changed the complexion of the Blues' pre-season and much more with it.

Within 15 minutes of that switch, Hazard had pulled Chelsea to within touching distance of their opponents. The clock eventually ran down to prevent Chelsea pulling level, yet Hazard's two goals made the game feel a lot better than it had been. From 3-0 down and without a hope, 3-2 looked far more respectable.

With just Diego Costa and Batshuayi as his first-team strikers this season, Conte is still testing out his formula at Stamford Bridge. It was Loftus-Cheek—a midfielder by trade—and Traore who led the line in the Big House, but experience meant they were ineffective.

For all their endeavour, the pair struggled to break Real's rearguard to get in behind. They were making it comfortable for Real centre-back Raphael Varane, playing in front of him and not being clever enough to pull players out of position. It's clear they need more time to develop the threat Chelsea require of them.

When Conte moved Hazard centrally, Chelsea came alive. The Belgian was wise to everything, sitting on the shoulder of his opposite number to break free whenever a team-mate spotted him.

That happened twice, and Hazard scored twice. The first was from a perfectly weighted through ball from Nathaniel Chalobah on 80 minutes, before Batshuayi repeated the trick close to the final whistle for a carbon-copy goal.

TONY DING/Associated Press

On each occasion, Hazard rounded the goalkeeper to slot home into an empty net.

With a more experienced keeper up against him, there's every reason to suggest Hazard may not have found things so simple. Ruben Yanez showed his naivety by leaving himself so exposed that Hazard could breeze beyond him.

That shouldn't be the focus, though. What should be is how Hazard had got himself in the sort of positions that meant he was a goal threat, operating alongside Batshuayi to outline how effective he can be through the middle.

Hazard demonstrated he can sniff out opportunities, playing more centrally to be a bigger threat than he will be on the left side of Chelsea's four-man attack.

TONY DING/Associated Press

"Hazard played 30 minutes and he is recovering a good shape," Conte told the Chelsea website afterwards. "I like him in this position, like a forward, and he can be a good solution for us. Also playing as a winger. To play as a second forward he must improve his shape but he is working and he knows his shape can a lot in the same way as the other players."

Speaking of Chelsea's wingers, they will be required to work tirelessly on the flanks all season if Conte persists with the 4-2-4 we have seen since he took over. They're required as much defensively as they are in attack, dropping deep quick to protect those behind them whenever Chelsea lose possession.

That has never been Hazard's quality, and Chelsea didn't sign him for that four years ago. His purpose in this Chelsea side is to cause problems going the other way, and when he's in the sort of mood he was against Real, there are few better.

TONY DING/Associated Press

Playing Hazard wide left or right doesn't fit for Conte's team ethic. The question, then, is how to find a place for such a mercurial talent. The answer presented itself in Michigan: play him as Chelsea's second striker.

Whether Hazard is partnering Costa or Batshuayi, his talents complement the other. His diminutive frame give him that jinking quality to burst past players and create space, while Costa or Batshuayi are much more physical and an aerial threat.

With those glorious gluteus maximus muscles powering him, Hazard fires out of the blocks to leave defenders in his wake. When he struggled with injuries in that area last season, it's why he proved so ineffective.

Watching Hazard through the middle against Real had an air of 1990s Chelsea about it. It was in the latter part of the decade that Gianfranco Zola and Mark Hughes combined so effectively to propel Chelsea up the table and make them outside challengers for the Premier League.

Indeed, it was that generation of players that got the ball rolling for the success that would follow in west London, leading up to Roman Abramovich's 2003 takeover of the club.

On the back of that, it was Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who repeated the Zola-Hughes partnership. Could Hazard be ready to create something similar?

It's clear that Conte wants two front men this season, and with Hazard showing us his wares in the Big House, he seems to have solved that big conundrum for his boss.

   

Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report's lead Chelsea correspondent. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @garryhayes

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