Football

Hazard inspires the changing face of Chelsea

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Hazard evades a tackle from Guthrie. (©GettyImages)
Hazard evades a tackle from Guthrie. (©GettyImages).

Chelsea will be defined by a different sort of player this season. If there ever was any doubt about who would fill the void left by the departed Didier Drogba in 2012/13, two Premier League games in, and the answer is abundantly clear.

At Stamford Bridge last night, Eden Hazard was instrumental to everything the Blues offered in attack, setting up three of the four goals scored against a fearless Reading side, marking a total of five assists from the six goals scored so far.

The official figures will show only three assists for the fleet-footed Belgian forward. The two converted Frank Lampard penalties will not be credited to Hazard, even though he earned both spot-kicks with two examples of intricate play in the box. Irrespective, his impact is undeniable.

Operating centrally as the playmaker behind Fernando Torres, and supported by the interchanging Juan Mata and Ramires on either flank, Chelsea and Hazard, came flying out the blocks on Wednesday evening. The Champions of Europe against last season's Championship winners, early indications suggested there could only be one winner.

It all seemed to be going to the pre-match script. Torres and Ramires both had shots blocked, before the 21-year-old's jinking run enticed a clumsy challenge by Chris Gunter. 18 minutes in, and it was 1-0 Chelsea, courtesy of a trademark Lampard penalty. But then, back came Reading.

While the hosts' front four were at their creative best, Roberto Di Matteo's defence was left exposed. And, in the space of 11 chaotic minutes, the Royals were not only back in the game. They were ahead.

Pavel Pogrebnyak diverted a bullet header past the helpless Petr Cech, after working some space away from Gary Cahill, and connecting brilliantly with Garath McCleary's well-whipped cross from the right. Then, Danny Guthrie's free-kick, after John Terry fouled Jobi McAnuff on the edge of the box, forced an uncharacteristic error from the Blues stopper, to give the visitors a 2-1 half-time lead.

After the interval, Chelsea turned up the pressure. Hazard moved out left to make room for the arrival of fellow summer signing Oscar, who replaced his Brazilian compatriot Ramires, and then the Blues brought on Daniel Sturridge for John Obi Mikel.

Di Matteo's front six now consisted of Lampard and Oscar, Sturridge, Mata and Hazard, with Torres up top. It wasn't long before Chelsea were level, courtesy of a Cahill shot from the edge of the box, but Adam Federici will be disappointed he didn't do better to keep it out.

If Chelsea's second goal is put down to a mistake by the Reading goalkeeper, then the third has to be credited to Andrew Halliday - the assistant referee - who failed to spot Torres in a clear offside position, the Spaniard slotting home Ashley Cole's cross from close-range, after more neat work by Mata, much to the annoyance of Brian McDermott.

Reading refused to lay down, and continued to attack with intent, pressing for an equaliser right until the final whistle. In the third minute of stoppage time, Federici came up for a corner, leaving the visitors' net unguarded. Chelsea broke, with the tireless Hazard, who teed up Branislav Ivanovic for his second goal of the season.

The manner of Chelsea's performance will have drawn a wry smile from Russian owner Roman Abramovich, who for years has craved a side that plays a certain style, in addition to challenging for trophies. On last night's evidence the Blues will look to pass rather than power their way through teams.

Di Matteo has constantly reiterated that his tenure will be more of an evolution than a revolution, but with the arrival of a number of new, young, exciting, attack-minded players - Hazard the most devastating of them all - it's hard to believe that entirely.

"I always said that it was going to be paramount to keeping a good balance in our team," explained the Italian. "It's all great and everybody wants to see a lot of flair play and attacking play. But, to win games you need to have a good balance about it. And it's going to be a challenge.

"I thought there was some good football, a lot of rotation between our players, and we attacked in numbers, creating several chances as well. The players were really enjoying themselves.

"He [Hazard] certainly had an impact in our team. I think he and Juan Mata together linked up very well. He's finding his feet very quickly, so it's pleasing for us."

Even if Di Matteo refuses to admit it, it's clear that we are witnessing the most significant change to the style of a Chelsea team since the arrival of Drogba under Jose Mourinho in 2004.

Topics:
Football
Chelsea
Premier League
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