Reborn Hazard set for Real Madrid No. 9 role in Benzema absence
With Karim Benzema injured, Eden Hazard is set to make his first Real Madrid start in nearly eight months when Los Blancos face Real Mallorca in LaLiga on Sunday.
Eden Hazard’s goal against Celtic was only the second he has scored in the Champions League since he arrived at Real Madrid in summer 2019. The first, against Inter Milan, was a penalty in 2020. In all, the Belgian has mustered just seven goals in 69 games in a Madrid career that has been dogged by injuries ever since he had his ankle broken by international colleague Thomas Meunier in November 2019, in a European clash with Paris Saint-Germain. With his strike at Celtic Park, he took a weight off his shoulders. He not only found the net for the first time since a January Copa del Rey tie against Elche, but also - and more importantly - he offered up his first convincing performance as a replacement for Karim Benzema, operating in the new No. 9 role that Ancelotti has devised for the 31-year-old. With the injured Benzema out of the games against Real Mallorca and RB Leipzig and a serious doubt for the Madrid derby against Atlético on Sunday week, Hazard is back in the spotlight.
Ancelotti lauds Hazard’s “perfect” display at Celtic
“Hazard played the perfect game,” Ancelotti said post-match in Glasgow, having introduced the Belgian when Benzema limped off with a knee issue after half an hour. “He scored one, had a hand in another, and gave the team real attacking penetration.” In addition to rounding off a fantastic Madrid move, slotting home after build-up play that lasted over a minute and half and featured 34 passes, he also popped up in positions right across the forward line - something that was reminiscent of the Hazard that dazzled at Chelsea and persuaded Madrid to pay €100 million plus €40m in add-ons when he only had a year left on his contract at Stamford Bridge. “I didn’t expect this performance from him,” Ancelotti added on Tuesday. “He’s motivated in training. He’s important for us and hopefully he can carry on in this vein.”
Champions League goal comes at crucial time
The goal against Celtic came at a key moment for Hazard: given his lack of game time in Madrid’s first five matches of the season, he had begun to harbour doubts about his new role in the team. He had only managed two run-outs lasting 32 and seven minutes against Celta Vigo and Almería, respectively. In the Belgian media, his camp let it be known that this was a major disappointment for the forward after his summer exertions to be in the best shape possible for the new campaign - and after the promise he made to the fans as Madrid celebrated last season’s league and Champions League double. “I’ve been here for three years, with injuries and many things... But I promise that next year I’ll give my all for you,” he vowed. Soon after, in an interview in Belgium, he scotched talk of a close-season departure from Spain: “Everyone knows that I have a contract until 2024. My first three seasons didn’t go well, so I want to show everyone what I can bring to the team. It has always been a dream to play for Real Madrid, and it still is.”
Fitness the key as Hazard impresses Ancelotti
As he sought to kickstart his career, AS has learned, Hazard took refuge for most of the summer in his family home in the small town of Braine-le-Comte, where he was born, grew up and kicked a ball for the first time. Working with a personal trainer who is part of the Belgium backroom team, he focused on his fitness - and when he returned to Madrid, he was at his ideal weight. Ancelotti and his coaching staff were impressed. Perhaps for this reason, the Italian placed his trust in Hazard and opted against asking the club for another centre-forward, despite the summer departures of Borja Mayoral and Luka Jovic.
According to sources close to Hazard, the March operation he underwent to remove a plate from his ankle has allowed the Belgian to look to the near future with real optimism. Crucially, the pain in his ankle “has completely disappeared”, AS was told. He can now work on his physique without holding back and is able to run more freely, without having to inhibit his natural gait; all this, it can only be assumed, will help him put the frequent injuries of recent times behind him.
Against Mallorca on Sunday, Hazard is poised to make his first Madrid start for 231 days. He was last in the line-up on 23 January, partnering Vinícius Júnior and Benzema in a LaLiga clash against Elche that did not go to plan for Los Blancos, who needed a last-gasp goal by Éder Militão to salvage a 2-2 draw at the Bernabéu. It’s not just that he has managed only 69 appearances in the three seasons and a bit that he’s been in Spain. It’s also that only 40 of those were starts, and on just five occasions has he played the full 90 minutes. However, everything feels different now. Hazard looks to have a new lease of life.
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