A Sunday in northern France near the Belgian border has become the pilgrimage of choice for well-moneyed Premier League managers of late. Arsene Wenger was the first to make the journey, but the most high-profile visit was that of Sir Alex Ferguson seven days ago. This weekend it was Roberto Mancini’s turn, and he brought David Platt along with him to carry the luggage.
Each of these managers, representing Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City, have made the short, cross-channel trip for a seat at Stade Lille-Metropole and a first-hand look at Eden Hazard—the local team’s 21-year-old star. Chelsea have also dispatched numerous delegations to the dilapidated ground (scout Guy Hillion claims he has seen Hazard in person more than 20 times) and Inter Milan, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur have each expressed an interest in the Belgium international as well.
It’s not hard to see why.
Hazard is the rarest of rare talents—a versatile forward who loves to dribble the ball, is nearly impossible to dispossess and operates at 100 miles per hour all the time. Former Lille manager Claude Puel famously likened him to Lionel Messi; Zinedine Zidane once said he’d sign him for Real Madrid “with my eyes closed.”
Now, the Messi comparison certainly isn’t fair (it’s not fair to any footballer), but there is an element of truth to it. The pace and dribbling attributes are obvious, but what’s even more fascinating is that Hazard, like Messi, has begun his career as a wide attacker. It wouldn’t be at all surprising that, with his inevitable summer transfer, he was gradually moved into the centre by his new club.
Exactly which club that is remains to be seen, but no doubt the bidding war will escalate as July approaches.
Realistically, only Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City and perhaps Manchester United can afford the type of fee being bandied about (upwards of €40 million), although Tottenham would suddenly become a serious player if they chose to use the proceeds of a Luca Modric sale to lure Hazard to White Hart Lane.
No matter where he chooses to go, however, it’s quite likely Hazard will have to give up some of the creative, positional freedom he has enjoyed under Rudi Garcia at Lille. The goal he scored in the first half against Valenciennes on Sunday—a blazing-quick dash at goal following a neat exchange with Tulio de Melo and concluded with a confident finish—wouldn’t be as common at Madrid or City, where build-up is more organised and positions more rigid.
A possible exception exists in the person of Pep Guardiola, although the current Barcelona manager hasn’t yet clarified his intentions for next season.
Should Guardiola leave Camp Nou, Hazard would do well to follow him to his next destination. He understands how to bring a footballer from “prodigy” to “superstar” and would be willing, indeed compelled, to allow Hazard the freedom he wouldn’t get at many of Europe’s biggest clubs.
This sort of speculation is, however, only that: speculation. And for the moment Eden Hazard is a Lille player. He’ll be a Lille player for at least another two months, and over those two months he may very well play the most entertaining, shackle-free football of his career.
Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer