A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Serendipity is considered one of the top 10 hardest English words to translate, but it’s one that’s all too familiar to football scouts around the world. The annals of football history are littered with examples of one player being watched, often for the final time before a bid is about to be launched, only for another to dramatically steal the show and eclipse him.
Roy Hodgson witnessed just such a moment on Sunday when he accompanied Liverpool scout Laurent Viaud to France for the second time in as many weeks. The pair were in Villeneuve-d-Ascq ostensibly to run the rule over Gervinho, Lille’s skilful Ivory Coast international striker, with whom they were strongly linked in the summer months.
A product of Jean-Marc Guillou’s famous ASEC Abidjan youth academy, which saw nine of its graduates, including the Touré brothers, Salomon Kalou and Emmanuel Eboué all start for the Ivory Coast against Portugal at the World Cup in South Africa, Gervinho missed four goalscoring chances and was ultimately substituted by Ludovic Obraniak with 20 minutes remaining.
But it wasn’t a wasted journey for Hodgson and Viaud, as they made a fortunate discovery while looking for something else entirely, getting to see one of the finest performances from a player in Europe this season. Eden Hazard was later given a nine in L’Équipe for his match-winning display against Monaco, a rating that is extremely rare and can be put into some perspective by the fact that only five players in history have received full marks from the paper’s ever-so-hard to please band of journalists.
The 19-year-old set up Pierre-Alain Frau for Lille’s opener with a stunning mid-air Cruyff turn of an assist. And when Monaco equalised, it took yet more inspiration from Hazard to restore the home side's lead. Operating from his position on the right flank, the Belgium international played a quick one-two with Tulio De Melo then raced to the byline before pulling the ball back accurately for Obraniak, who slotted home the winner, making Lille the sixth team to top the table in France this season.
“When Hazard plays at this level, he is untouchable. His talent is unique in Ligue 1,” wrote L’Équipe. Frau for one was in no position to disagree with that assessment and soon after the match he revealed to Orange Sport just how much his fellow teammates are in awe of the footballer already twice voted Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year. “Eden continues to be mind-blowing,” the veteran grinned. “Sometimes even on the pitch, we say: Wow!”
Hodgson was giving nothing away. “There were a lot of good players on the pitch,” the 63-year-old dourly remarked on his way out of the ground. His peers within the French game found it a little harder to contain their emotions, though. Rolland Courbis, the former Marseille coach and a colourful personality both on and off the pitch, told RMC Sport: “At times it looks to me like Lionel Messi on the right-hand side… I said ‘at times’. He’ll get more consistent with the experience he acquires in the coming years.”
Of course, it’s inconceivable that Hazard hasn’t been on Viaud’s radar and that of his boss, Liverpool’s newly appointed director of football strategy, Damien Comolli, for some considerable time. Tipped as one of the brightest young talents in European football even before making his Ligue 1 debut in 2007 aged just 16, Hazard has always been something of a prodigal talent.
His father Thierry was a former professional footballer in the Belgian second division. But there was no pressure to follow in his footsteps. “We didn’t direct his education in a football sense,” Thierry told France Football in March. “He only started to play football at around four and a half or five-years-old in a club coached by his godfather. One should say that there is a pitch right next to our house! He took to it very quickly and from then onwards it was football, football, football. He broke everything inside and outside the house, trying to reproduce the moves he saw on TV like step overs or Zinedine Zidane’s roulettes.”
In April, Zidane told Spanish paper Marca that he considers Hazard to be the “star of the future,” adding that: “I’d sign him for Real Madrid with my eyes closed.” So it would appear that all the time he spent copying Zizou’s roulettes has actually paid off. But Hazard hasn’t let the many compliments go to his head – far from it in fact - which will certainly be of interest to Comolli who told liverpoolfc.tv on November 15 that he’d had a long conversation with Kenny Dalglish about what it takes to be a Liverpool player, talking more about the “personal character [and] personality aspect” of the players than their talent alone.
Hazard tormented Liverpool in last year's Europa League
“He isn’t arrogant,” Marseille legend Franck Sauzée highlighted on Orange Sport. “He is humble in his comments. He mustn’t change.” The staff at Lille also offer up a glowing report of the player’s character. “He is an extra-terrestrial,” smiled Anne-Sophie Leuliette, who is responsible for teaching the club’s youngsters. “He hasn’t changed a lot since his arrival. He has remained very humble and kind, contrary to the others.”
Hazard’s former mentor Dick Advocaat has raised questions about his apparent lack of charisma. But Lille’s academy director Jean-Michel Vandamme puts that down to Hazard possessing a diligence that is out of the ordinary.
“Eden has a great intellectual honesty,” Vandamme told France Football. “We sometimes have a row about his progress at the academy. When we saw his parents to talk about it, his mother would ask him: ‘Is what Monsieur Vandamme says true’. He would never look for excuses when he didn’t do well on the pitch. He is a real competitor, not a cheat, nor a moaner, because you don’t hear him complaining when he gets fouled.”
And yet Hazard’s inner resolve has been severely tested this season. Lille coach Rudi Garcia left him on the bench for three matches in a row between September 26 and October 17 after a start to the campaign that was only remarkable for its distinct mediocrity. “It was to allow him to breathe and to learn that his performances were insufficient,” Garcia said, explaining his controversial decision.
The player who had drawn comparisons with Enzo Scifo when making his debut for Belgium aged 17 was now on the fringes of the national team. The leading light of a golden generation was left in the stands against Kazakhstan on October 8 and played just 10 minutes as a second half substitute against Austria a few days later.
“I like Eden a lot,” Belgium manager Georges Leekens said. “But he must work more. For the moment he is in a haze at Lille where he is often on the bench. It’s up to him to work physically and mentally. I am not here to hand out gifts. I am here to motivate because Belgium needs a great Eden.”
Unsurprisingly to Vandamme his pupil has managed to turn it around.
The Belgian has lead Lille to the summit of Ligue 1
After all, Hazard has been directly or indirectly involved in seven of Lille’s last 11 goals. His insatiable run of form over the last month has provided the catalyst to his side’s season. They had been stuttering despite going unbeaten in their first seven matches in all competitions.
Last year’s best attack in Ligue 1 - the one that had averaged nearly four goals a game between November 28 2009 and January 17 2010 - was struggling to catch fire. Lille scored just twice in their opening four matches. And when they did find the net four times in one game, it was misleading because it came against beleaguered Lens who were reduced to nine men. Immediately after that result Les Dogues lost to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League and although they bounced back with a 1-0 victory over Auxerre, Moussa Sow readily admitted that his winning goal was offside.
Back-to-back defeats to Lyon and Marseille were all too familiar given Lille’s poor record against France’s ‘big’ clubs, but a 2-2 draw away to Levski Sofia was the lowest ebb with Garcia calling the performance “catastrophic.” He joined the country in questioning the club’s ambition. Lille needed a spark and it came from Hazard.
On November 7, he helped open the deadlock that was Brest’s defence, a watertight backline that hadn’t been breached in 832 minutes. Then he orchestrated a 5-2 demolition of Caen. Sunday’s sublime performance against Monaco, his best of the season so far, came just three days after a 500km trip to Voronezh where he made his comeback for Belgium, contributing to an unexpected 2-0 win signed by Romelu Lukaku. “In my opinion, he is back again,” Marc Wilmots said. “He is a lot better since the electric shock, which made him take a lot of things into consideration.”
Asked to reveal what has changed, Hazard himself said: “Nothing. I keep working at training and I knew that I’d come back.” And if he can maintain this level of performance for the rest of the season in tandem with the likes of Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye, Moussa Sow and Gervinho, Lille could well make a breakthrough and win Ligue 1 for the first time since 1954. Then it won’t just be Damien Comolli sending a fax to Lille president Michel Seydoux.
Yet luring Hazard away from Villeneuve-d-Ascq won’t be easy. He has a contract until June 2014, which protects his value, but also more importantly it underlines his commitment to the club. “Eden has told us very interesting things,” Seydoux explained. “He wants to see the new ground [which is due to open in 2012] and we wish to see the new ground with Eden Hazard on the pitch.” Pundits such as Christophe Dugarry also feel that Lille’s presence away from the spotlight is good for his long-term development, citing Hatem Ben Arfa’s experiences at Marseille where the media pressure is immense. “It’s not bad for Lille and Hazard to stay a little longer in the shadows,” he wrote
There is a sense, though, that sooner or later, he will have to move on. “Eden is a talent, but he can’t be eternally considered as such,” Advocaat said last week. “He must find new motivation. A new club for example.” Whether that new club is Liverpool remains to be seen.
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