Hazard to replace Ronaldo at Real Madrid? What a welcome for new Chelsea manager Sarri
Maurizio Sarri could have been forgiven for putting his feet up and enjoying the dying embers of the 2018 World Cup after his appointment as Antonio Conte's successor as Chelsea manager was confirmed on Saturday.
The 59-year-old former Napoli manager, tasked with restoring the club back among English football's elite on a three-year contract, is reported to have received a €9 million (Dh38.6m) compensation package with his former employers. His first act in English football was to give Pep Guardiola's Manchester City a metaphorical bloody nose by pinching Italy international Jorghino from under the noses of the Premier League champions.
There is work to be done at Stamford Bridge. The Londoners finished fifth last term just 12 months after winning the Premier League title, while Conte's reported discontent with the club's hierarchy over player transfers at the start of the 2017/18 campaign hung over the club like a bad smell until its conclusion on Friday.
That's not to say Sarri is starting from a low base. A squad brimming with talent underachieved last season but did secure a trophy following a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup final.
The architect of that victory was Eden Hazard. The fleet-footed winger drawing a clumsy foul from Phil Jones before slotting home the resulting penalty to give what would eventually prove to be a farewell present for Conte.
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Hazard was again Jones's tormentor-in-chief during Belgium's third place play-off victory against England in Saint Petersburg on Saturday. He started the move that led to Thomas Meunier's opener before taking advantage of comical defending by Jones, who looked lost at sea as Belgium poured forward for the umpteenth attack. The Manchester United defender dropped a good five yards off the rest of his defensive line to play Hazard on side and then feebly attempted to intercept a pass to the Belgian captain before watching on in horror as he slotted home past Jordan Pickford.
If the sight of Hazard wreaking havoc on Premier League defenders would have had Sarri purring, Hazard's comments post-match were about to burst the former banker's bubble.
Speaking after helping his country secure the bronze medal, Hazard, 27, dropped the bombshell that he is considering leaving Chelsea before the start of next season, with Real Madrid thought to be his preferred destination.
“After six wonderful years at Chelsea, it might be time to discover something different," Hazard told reporters.
"I can decide if I want to stay or go, but Chelsea will make the final decision. For my career, certainly after this World Cup, I’m at a moment where I might change. I will go on holiday and ask myself the right questions."
The European and club world champions have a long-standing interest in Hazard. The player courted the Spanish giants last summer but was sidelined by an ankle injury that saw him miss the start of the 2017/18 season. Last week, Hazard spoke of his admiration for the club in an interview with BeIN Sports.
"I think Real Madrid is everyone’s dream. [Former manager Zinedine] Zidane or no Zidane, the white shirt is special," Hazard said.
Hazard did not repeat his desire to join Madrid following Belgium's 2-0 victory, but alluded to his past declarations.
"We all know that I’ve always felt well at Chelsea, and I’ve been linked to all the big clubs. Next week it will be Bayern [Munich]. No I’m joking. You all know my preferred destination," added Hazard, who joined Chelsea from Lille in 2012 for £32m (Dh156m).
Hazard's comments come against the backdrop that Madrid are in the market for a top-class forward after selling all-time leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus for €100m last week. Hazard's contract at Chelsea runs until the summer of 2020, so an opening gambit to lure the Belgian to the Bernabeu would have be more than the fee for Ronaldo and closer to the €180m that took Kylian Mbappe to Paris Saint-Germain permanently this summer to bring Chelsea to the negotiating table.
Whether through circumstance or the club's reluctance to sell, keeping Hazard - who has won two Premier League titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup and one Europa League trophy during his six years at Chelsea - at the club last season was arguably their best bit of business. Doing so for a second successive summer would be staggering.
Chelsea believe they have got in Sarri an astute tactician who produces sides playing exciting football with his three years at Napoli harvesting two second-placed finishes in Serie A. Given Hazard's latest comment, they best hope Sarri's powers of persuasion are even more impressive.