November 30, 2022

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Eden Hazard struggles to make an impact as he endures a difficult return to Stamford Bridge

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Home comforts, in the end, did not inspire Eden Hazard and this would prove to be an exciting glimpse of Chelsea‘s future rather than a wistful reflection on a golden past.

It was a night for the next generation. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz combined for the first, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic for the second, to kill the tie and send them to Istanbul.

Edouard Mendy resisted in goal behind Thomas Tuchel’s miserly defensive unit and N’Golo Kante ran the show in midfield, resurgent, back to supreme best. 

Eden Hazard's return to Stamford Bridge with Real Madrid didn't go as he would have hoped

Eden Hazard's return to Stamford Bridge with Real Madrid didn't go as he would have hoped

Eden Hazard’s return to Stamford Bridge with Real Madrid didn’t go as he would have hoped

How they all deserved to be cheered from the pitch to the sound of One Step Beyond.

Victory ought to have been more comfortable. Tuchel’s team were wasteful but they fizzed with energy. They carved open Real Madrid and they bristled with possibilities.

Real required all their experience and more than a little luck to hang in the tie. They refused to fold but, ultimately, they crashed out with the look of fading champions.

Hazard could not summon one of those match-winning performances after so long out. It proved to be more than an hour before he conjured an attempt at goal, saved by Mendy.

‘We do not need a miracle or crazy stuff,’ Tuchel said. All he needed was a clean sheet and his team specialise in them. All he needed his back-four to play to form.

Only the closed doors of the pandemic denied Hazard what would have been a rapturous homecoming. They really do cherish their returning heroes at Stamford Bridge.

The 30-year-old, who has struggled with injury, wasn't at his best as Real were knocked out

The 30-year-old, who has struggled with injury, wasn't at his best as Real were knocked out

The 30-year-old, who has struggled with injury, wasn’t at his best as Real were knocked out

They hailed Didier Drogba when he came back in the colours of Galatasaray and Petr Cech with the Arsenal cannon of his chest. They incurred the wrath of Jose Mourinho by singing Frank Lampard’s name as he equalised against them for Manchester City.

They once stood to applaud when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored for Charlton and they would have embraced Hazard even though his intention was to ruin their night.

Certainly more so than Thibaut Courtois. Certainly, a friendlier welcome than Hazard received from Andreas Christensen, who gave him a cuddle during an early break in play and then cut him down from behind at the first opportunity.

Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta, perhaps the two Chelsea players who know him best, on the right side of the back-five, were entrusted to keep him quiet.

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Jorginho picked up an early yellow card for tripping Hazard as he stretched out of defence on a counter-attack: a spin and little explosion of pace, like a rubber ball.

‘The most talented footballer I’ve ever played with,’ said BT Sport pundit Joe Cole, a teammate of Hazard’s at Lille. ‘It’s unfathomable how it hasn’t worked out for him at Real Madrid.’

Hazard was denied the opportunity to receive a rapturous reception from the Chelsea fans

Hazard was denied the opportunity to receive a rapturous reception from the Chelsea fans

Hazard was denied the opportunity to receive a rapturous reception from the Chelsea fans

Two seasons in Spain have been marred by injuries, besides the lockdown disruptions. He has been criticised for his fitness and physical conditioning which can go awry when he is not playing regularly.

No-one who saw his seven years at Chelsea will question his natural talent. Nor his ability to seize responsibility on the big nights. He was the creative force behind the second decade of the Roman Abramovich era.

He arrived when they were European champions and departed having won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and the Europa League twice. His final appearance for Chelsea was a dazzling display, complete with two goals in the Europa League final against Arsenal, taking his total to 110 for the club.

This prize eluded him and maybe he could imagine fate smiling upon him as he recovered his fitness in time to face Chelsea and was selected by Zinedine Zidane to start in London.

There must have been a tingle down his spine as he stepped into a familiar area, albeit it from an unfamiliar angle, with a long walk from the health club doubling up as the away team dressing room, behind the Matthew Harding Stand.

Perhaps Zidane was banking on instinct kicking in as Real’s number seven, the number worn by Cristiano Ronaldo during his nine years at the club. He settled into his favoured berth, wide on the left, looking to twist inside and flicker in the areas in and around centre forward Karim Benzema.

The surface was slick from a pre-match downpour and his stage seemed to be set. Yet it quickly became evident Hazard was not at his sharpest. There were flicks and bursts, a foot on the ball and a pirouette clear of Jorginho as he dug deeper for inspiration.

But he was not at his sharpest. He is 30, has not played regularly and was not in his rhythm. His Real teammates, in fact, often seemed to think twice about giving him the ball.

Kai Havertz is a different type of player but could eventually be Eden Hazard's successor

Kai Havertz is a different type of player but could eventually be Eden Hazard's successor

Kai Havertz is a different type of player but could eventually be Eden Hazard’s successor

It was Benzema who threatened Edouard Mendy’s goal in the first 45 minutes, as he had done in Madrid. And it was Chelsea who struck first, a goal nodded by Werner into an empty net after fine play by Kante and Havertz.

As Real search for a successor to Ronaldo so Chelsea search for a successor to Hazard. Havertz is a different type of footballer. Taller and more elegant, he plays the game at a different pace.

Werner and Pulisic are closer in style to the Belgian and they both found the net in this semi-final. Havertz, however, may be the player who matures into his natural successor once he finds his true role in Tuchel’s team.

His key contribution to the Werner goal may prove a significant stage of their development into new Chelsea heroes. This night belonged to them and not to the returning legend.

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