In the debate over who should lead the Chelsea attack, there should be only one question that matters: which striker will help to get the best out of Eden Hazard? To put it frankly, everything else should be secondary when Chelsea possess a player capable of producing performances as relentlessly brilliant as this.
Maurizio Sarri had dropped Alvaro Morata for this meeting with Cardiff City, instead trusting Olivier Giroud to provide the platform for Hazard to thrive. The decision paid off, to spectacular effect, as Giroud proved to be the most able of sidekicks on a day when Hazard was simply untouchable.
Such was Hazard’s quality here, when his three goals guaranteed a fifth consecutive win for Chelsea, that Sarri suggested that he may be the finest player on the continent. “I thought that Hazard was one of the best players in Europe,” Sarri said. “But now I change my mind – maybe he is the best now.”
High praise indeed, but there are few attackers as scintillating as Hazard on afternoons like these. With Giroud alongside him, creating two of Hazard’s three goals, the Belgian resembled the country’s most destructive dodgem as he bounced off challenges and zigged through tackles.
The 27-year-old has either scored or assisted a goal in every match he has played this campaign, and he has now notched seven goals in his last five games. And this is all despite having no pre-season after his World Cup exploits. “I am fresh,” Hazard said. “I took three weeks off after the World Cup. For me it was enough.”
It will be a source of fear for the rest of the league that Sarri believes Hazard can reach even greater heights. The Chelsea head coach thinks Hazard is capable of scoring 40 goals this season, and says he will be better when he learns to be more economical in his movement. “I think he can improve more,” Sarri said. “I think he can spend less energy at 50 or 60 metres to the opposite goal. When we have the ball in our half he touches the ball five or six times, so his actions show he spends a lot of energy. He can have more energy in the last 25 metres.”
If these are concerns in Sarri’s mind, then he must not be having too many sleepless nights. What Neil Warnock, the Cardiff manager, would give for such problems. He watched his side take the lead, through Sol Bamba, but would have known they were never likely to maintain it. By the time Willian curled in a fourth, Cardiff were mentally and physically beaten.
“Hazard is a good player, isn’t he?” Warnock quipped afterwards. “That’s what you’re going to get when you’re playing against these teams. I suppose as a neutral it’s great to watch him like that. He’s unplayable at times.”
Still, there were positives for Warnock to take back to Wales, not least in the way they threatened from set-pieces. Bamba had his first big chance within 12 minutes, and by the 16th he had clattered the ball into the back of Kepa Arrizabalaga’s net. Joe Ralls had launched the ball towards the edge of the box, where Sean Morrison had headed it across the face of goal. Waiting for it was the 14-stone, 6ft 3in Bamba, challenged by the 10-stone, 5ft 11in Jorginho. The Chelsea midfielder could count himself fortunate not to have ended up in the net with the ball.
The equaliser arrived soon enough, as was to be expected, when Hazard latched onto Giroud’s sharp pass and breezed past Joe Bennett before lashing a shot into the far corner. This was Hazard at his best, thriving off Giroud’s awareness. The duo repeated the trick a few moments later, when Giroud’s wonderfully dainty touch, on the stretch and surrounded by Cardiff bodies, allowed Hazard to tuck home one of the more straightforward finishes he will have this season.
After the break, Bamba fouled Willian in the box after racing onto Hazard’s pass, and the Belgian was never going to miss from the spot. The extra gloss was added when Willian whipped a trademark effort into the top corner.