Eden Hazard is embarking on a new adventure with Real Madrid but the expectations are high. The club needs a new hero and only greatness will be good enough, writes Adam Bate.
There is one room in particular within the bowels of the Bernabeu that leaves a lasting impression during the Real Madrid stadium tour. Punters happily pay 25 euros a pop for the privilege of being bombarded with the message that they are visiting the world’s most successful football club. But it is this trophy room that reveals the most about the Madrid psyche.
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It is not a celebration of the 13 European Cups, that is elsewhere. It is a celebration of the individual awards picked up by Real Madrid players past and present. Among other notable trophies and trinkets, the room houses the Ballon d’Or collection. Instantly, it underlines Madrid’s unique obsession with individual greatness as well as the collective.
The bloated cabinet of awards won by Cristiano Ronaldo is to be expected. It is the inclusion of other gongs that is so odd. Michael Owen’s Ballon d’Or win of 2001 is treated with the sort of reverence usually reserved for a precious work of art. It is only when one recalls that Owen did not actually join Real Madrid until 2004 that its peculiarity is fully apparent.
Fabio Cannavaro’s Ballon d’Or win of 2006? Well, he had signed for Madrid by the time that he collected the prize, although he was being honoured for taking Italy to World Cup glory. Kaka’s win the following year is behind the glass too despite him not joining until 2009. Ronaldo’s 2008 win as a Manchester United player gets the same treatment as the rest.
In the Bernabeu, there can never be enough reminders that Real Madrid are the greatest – officially, according to the award they received from FIFA in 2001. That’s proudly displayed too, naturally. Madrid are the best so it only makes sense that they must have the best players. And they have the best players so it only makes sense that they must be the best.
This is the world into which Eden Hazard now enters.
Real Madrid need Hazard, and not just to add impetus to an ageing forward line that has become too predictable in the final third. They need his freshness and his appeal. They need him to placate the 55,000 who crowded into the Bernabeu for a glimpse of their new star at his unveiling in June, and the millions of fans worldwide who have signed up for success.
For a club that has made it its business to own the game’s greats, they find themselves in transition. Ronaldo is long gone but Madrid’s streets are still peppered with replica jerseys bearing the name of their all-time record scorer. The most popular alternative is Sergio Ramos, a genuinely great 33-year-old defender but a 33-year-old defender nevertheless.
On the day of Hazard’s arrival, the official club shop in the city centre just off Puerta del Sol, depicts four men sporting the latest kit. Ramos is joined by Luka Modric, handily another Ballon d’Or winner but like the captain already 33, and Karim Benzema, only two years their junior. The other man is Lucas Vazquez, a useful homegrown performer but no superstar.
Gareth Bale is the man who commands the superstar salary and has the CV to match having scored the decisive goal in two Champions League finals – even finding the net in a third if you count his conversion in the shootout in 2016. But the Real Madrid supporters have long since fallen out of love with the Welshman, if indeed they were ever smitten at all.
Hazard’s job is to do what Bale could not and replace Ronaldo as both an entertainer and a winner. The first part should come easily enough. Few can dance through defences like he does. Hazard has the personality to enjoy the expectant audience that awaits him too. He is accustomed to close attention on the pitch and looks in the mood to make some memories.
The second part could prove more problematic, however. Winning is non-negotiable at Madrid but, for the reasons already mentioned and more, this team is undergoing a rebuild under Zinedine Zidane. Raphael Varane should be at his peak but too many of the squad are either past their very best or never likely to hit the heights that are demanded of them.
The onus will be on Hazard but he cannot do it alone. His record at Chelsea shows that much. When everything else was firing, he was irresistible. The relationship between Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa was critical in his first title win, the tactics of Antonio Conte and tenacity of N’Golo Kante were fundamental in his second, but Hazard was the star of both.
And yet, there were enough dips during his time at Chelsea to offer uncertainty. During his seven seasons at Stamford Bridge, the side finished outside the top two on five occasions and outside the top four twice. Hazard always decorates games but he will need to decide them week in and week out to have any hope of ending Barcelona’s domestic dominance.
He joins Madrid having enjoyed his best ever league season in front of goal – netting 16 times for Chelsea. Still, the suspicion remains that he will have to better that number at the first time of asking if he is to be deemed an unqualified success.
Even doubling that tally would only be enough to have won the Pichichi Trophy – Spain’s equivalent of the Golden Boot – once in the past decade.
He will be asked to score and will be asked to help fellow new signing Luka Jovic score too. He will be asked to thrill the crowd and win games big and small. He will be asked to put on a show for the day-trippers in the capital, and put up a fight when the going gets tough in the Basque Country and beyond. Among new teammates, he will even be asked to lead.
At 28, this is the right time to take on that responsibility and produce the season of seasons but the stakes are high, because the Bernabeu boos are no respecter of reputation. Hazard will need goals and assists. He will have to bring tricks and leave with titles if he is to placate fans and media. It’s a level of expectation hitherto unknown for this easy-going character.