Eden Hazard: Can Real Madrid revive their '£150m glass footballer'?

Guillem Balague's BBC Sport column

When Real Madrid take on Atalanta in the Champions League on Wednesday there will be a notable - if entirely predictable - absentee.

Eden Hazard, signed in 2019 from Chelsea for a fee that could exceed £150m, will be nowhere to be seen.

But whisper it quietly, the word coming out of Madrid is that he is on the verge of making yet another comeback - his 11th to date - after an injury blighted 20 months at the club.

He had been expected to be out for between four and six weeks following yet another muscle injury sustained at the end of January in the game against Levante, but his return to the training ground last week for some gentle running exercises is just the boost the attacking midfielder needs as he tries to get his stuttering Real Madrid career back on track.

The truth is that in the ever-demanding, never-forgiving bearpit that is elite football, Hazard is rapidly finding out at Real Madrid what it means to fail to live up to the expectations that come with such a huge price tag, whether it's your fault or not.

"Eden Hazard," say the powerful Madrid media, "is made of glass."

The story so far with Hazard and Real Madrid

The Belgian arrived in the Spanish capital carrying more than just his cases. He came with an injury which kept him out for three games before he had even stepped onto the training ground and since then he has continued much as he started.

Up to this latest setback, Hazard's career at Madrid has seen him suffer more injuries (10) than he has scored goals (four), most of them muscle problems.

At the time of writing he has made 35 appearances but missed 46 games.

Eden Hazard
Hazard (centre) arrived at Real with great expectations but has struggled for form and fitness

It is a depressing catalogue of one injury after another plus, for good measure, a dose of coronavirus sandwiched between them in November last year.

At Chelsea he missed just 20 games over seven seasons.

It won't come as any consolation to him but he is at least in good company and merely the latest in an impressive line of superstars to arrive at Madrid and earn the unwanted, self-explanatory title of "futbolistas de cristal" (glass footballers).

Already comparisons are being made with Gareth Bale, who had 23 medical issues during his seven years at the club, although the Welshman could at least look back at moments of triumph, especially the Champions League final successes in Lisbon and Kiev.

The Brazilian sensation Kaka arrived at Madrid two years after winning the Ballon d'Or and proceeded to spend more time on the treatment table than he did on the training pitch.

And if you think Hazard is having it hard, spare a thought for the Englishman Jonathan Woodgate. His stay at Madrid from 2004 until 2007 saw him play fewer than 14 games in total and none at all in his first season.

When he did eventually make his debut in September 2005, in a league match against Athletic Bilbao, he scored an own goal and was later sent off.

So what is the problem with Hazard?

The question that many are now asking of Hazard is how much the trials and tribulations he is enduring are mental as much as physical?

In 2015-16 when Jose Mourinho was his manager at Chelsea, Hazard was named player of the season. Regarded by many - Mourinho included - as potentially a player at the same level as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the Chelsea boss started to pressure the Belgian to raise his game.

While technically and tactically he had everything in place, it remained to be seen whether he had the mental fortitude to be considered worthy of dining at the same table as the likes of Ronaldo and Messi.

And it soon became clear to Mourinho that the player didn't have the mental resilience to withstand that kind of pressure and that the stresses incurred trying to get him to step up lessened his effectiveness as a player.

Mourinho became swiftly aware that the way to get the best out of Hazard was to ensure he was relaxed, happy and not under any massive pressure. He backed off and Hazard regained his form.

Similarly, when Antonio Conte was at Chelsea he would privately admit the best way to ensure top performances from Hazard was by not putting too many stresses on him.

He realised from the start that in Hazard Chelsea had a player more suited to short-term objectives, such as his magnificent performance in the Europa League final in 2019 or when helping Belgium to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, than to long-term plans.

Those who know him best say Hazard is a player of moments and not for 90 minutes; a man who lacks the mental strength to demonstrate consistency and one who prefers to enjoy his life and feel relaxed rather than seek to live among football's elite.

Eden Hazard
Real Madrid paid an initial £89m for Hazard, meaning he has cost them more than £2.5m for every game he has played (excluding wages)

And it was precisely because of this lack of desire to be the leader, the captain, or to take on board the tactical requirements placed on him by the demanding Maurizio Sarri that led to his fall-out with the Italian coach.

At Madrid he has changed his routines. He does a lot of gym work, core and balance exercises, something he hardly did at all while at Chelsea.

The flippant disregard he has shown to his body in the past with such things as a less-than-ideal diet, coupled with mental fragility, has made him more vulnerable to injuries.

Add to that the fact he does not wear the mantle of stardom with any degree of comfort and his critics are quick to describe him as a 'fair-weather' player; someone who will shine when the sun is out and the team are playing well but vanish when the rain comes and problems appear.

The doctors in the Belgium national side are convinced the problems he is suffering are more physiological than psychological.

They believe Real Madrid have slightly forced the return to action of a player who has missed two pre-seasons as a result of injury.

But is it all Hazard's fault or do Real Madrid have an endemic injury crisis?

The Spanish champions have been hit hard by an injury crisis all season. Dani Carvajal's latest injury takes their total to 40 for the campaign, shared across 20 players.

In addition to Hazard, Real Madrid went into Saturday's win against Real Valladolid without Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde, Eder Militao, Alvaro Odriozola and Marcelo sidelined.

Nobody in Spain has suffered more injuries this season. According to stats published in Marca last week, so far this campaign they've had 25 more than Atletico Madrid's 15, 15 more than Barcelona's 25 and 22 more than Sevilla's 18.

What does the future hold for Hazard?

Friends and colleagues closest to the player unanimously agree that what Real Madrid need to do with him is press the reset button. Start afresh with the benefit of a full pre-season programme.

Hazard does not benefit from the luxury of having his own private medical assessors, something many top-level footballers do.

Eden Hazard
Three of Hazard's four goals for Real Madrid have come this season

He is also keen to please everyone and to do the right thing and at the moment that is causing him to please absolutely no-one, least of all himself.

Finally it is still not completely known what the repercussions of having suffered Covid-19 in November have been. Some have calculated that the medium to long-term effects of the illness can lead to symptoms similar to those associated with excessive training, which in turn can cause new injuries.

The club need to take on board the type of player Hazard is, rather than the player they thought they were buying. He is not a leader, an inspirer but rather a fantastic player who can be a vital ingredient in a winning team.

He is addressing his shortfalls and perhaps most importantly, is happy in Madrid. He is settled and enjoys the lifestyle.

The news that he can now re-start training with the first team will be just the boost he needs. He was in a dark place immediately after the latest setback. While he is unlikely to be part of the side to face Atalanta he is now in a much better frame of mind, especially after being given special dispensation to spend time at home with his family.

If Real Madrid can begin to understand what Hazard's main strengths are then there is no reason why he should not go on to enjoy a long and fruitful career at the Bernabeu.

More importantly perhaps, they need to take on board and accept what his limitations are and then, hopefully, it won't be long before we see him do at Real Madrid what he did with such frequency and aplomb with Chelsea and Belgium.

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