Eden Hazard and Mo Salah must answer questions to match big two

Eden Hazard and Mo Salah must answer questions to match big two

By Chris Hatherall

Given the football world is so desperate for an heir to fill the ageing shoes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, it is hardly surprising that Eden Hazard and Mo Salah will share a particularly bright spotlight when Chelsea face Liverpool at Stamford Bridge today amid suggestions both are capable of filling that void. But have we started the debate too soon?

It is the nature of modern-day television coverage that both players will be hyped to the very limit during the build-up to a game between third and first which already looks like an early title six-pointer and which pitches two of the Premier League’s most high-profile heroes against each other.

Chelsea staff, desperate for their Belgian talisman to stay in west London, have also been lining up to tell us he is now the best in Europe following a strong World Cup and a fast start to the Premier League campaign. But, despite his impressive form which includes five goals already this campaign there are reasons to be cautious.

Salah may have begun the season more slowly, for instance, but his God-like status in Africa and Liverpool’s global audience may well give him a better chance of challenging Messi and Ronaldo in terms of off-field earnings, global appeal and star quality; especially if Liverpool achieve their potential in terms of silverware in 2019.

But, and sorry to burst the bubble, on the pitch there remain some questions to be answered around consistency and realistic potential for both men — questions which one game at Stamford Bridge will not be enough to resolve not matter who proves to be the hero this evening.

For Hazard, in particular, the questions centre on consistency and attitude rather than on quality. There is no doubting the winger’s skill levels — his remarkable combination of pace, trickery, speed and strength are unmatched in the Premier League. His winning goal at Anfield in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday, which showcased them all, was a perfect example — and since being named captain of Belgium he seems to have added leadership qualities to his all-round package, which was already impressive.

Where Hazard has not yet reached Ronaldo-Messi levels is in their ability to do it year in, year out no matter who the manager, no matter how well the team is playing. Both those players are scoring 40 or more goals every season, even in times when the headlines have not been in their favour and — in Ronaldo’s case — even when their own fans have not always been supportive.

Hazard, by comparison, appears to have a worrying tendency to turn form on and off depending on how much he is appreciated by his coach.

Twice so far at Chelsea he has turned it off, firstly during the ill-fated 2015-16 season which proved to be the end of Jose Mourinho’s love affair with Chelsea.

There were extenuating circumstances — dressing room rows over physio Eva Carneiro’s treatment by Mourinho and the manager’s increasingly fractious relationship with the Blues board — but nevertheless Hazard, who had been player of the year the previous season, disappeared. He failed to score a single Premier League goal until April and when he finally scored twice at Bournemouth Mourinho had already gone.

Then in 2017-18, when things got difficult for Antonio Conte, Hazard waited until the end of October to score his first Premier League goal amid rumours the pair were at odds over the way the team should play.

The Belgian scored only once in the league between December 3 and February 5 and even that proved to be a false dawn — because between February 13 and the end of the season he managed only one more. His form only recovered, miraculously, when a trophy was at stake and he was man of the match in the FA Cup final, hitting the winner against Manchester United. It was only his second goal in 16 matches.

With Conte gone, and with Maurizio Sarri bending over backwards to keep Hazard happy, things are suddenly rosy again. Chelsea’s team is set up perfectly to make the most of their star man’s talents and he looks to be stepping up a level. But does that really mean he is ready to take Ronaldo’s crown? And what happens when Sarri disappears too and the next man prefers a different system?

Republic of Ireland legend Andy Townsend, speaking to the BBC, believes consistency is the only thing holding Hazard back from taking the next step.

“If Hazard can just add some consistency to his goalscoring who knows where he could go,” he said.

“He is a 20-goal-a-season man but he rarely gets there and the very best on the planet — Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — are up in the 60s. Hazard has been nothing like that. Now he is playing in a team which provide him with the opportunity to do that.”

With Salah, a year younger than Hazard at 26, there are certainly no questions about attitude. Here is a man who plays with a smile on his face and whose statistics, rather than going up and down like Hazard’s, show he is improving year on year.

So, in his case the only questions surround his ability to match what was a quite remarkable campaign last season when he scored 32 times to win the Premier League’s golden boot and also took Liverpool to the Champions League final.

Jurgen Klopp has already suggested he doesn’t expect as many goals from the Egyptian this time, but you have to ask: why not?

If Salah is to one day take Ronaldo’s crown he needs to hit those kind of numbers every year, with no excuses and no matter how well his team is playing.

Already there have been suggestions, after a slower start to the campaign, that tighter marking and stronger defences will make his job more difficult this season. But a deeper look at his statistics suggest it’s rather early to panic. Although he has only managed three goals (Sadio Mane has one more) that is still only one goal short of his tally at the same stage last season; and when you consider Liverpool have won six in a row in the Premier League then it can hardly be described as a problem.

It does mean, however, that is far too early to suggest Salah, who was nominated for FIFA player of the year but lost out to Luka Modric, is consistent enough to warrant comparisons with Ronaldo or Messi who have won 10 Ballon D’Ors between them.

A match-up with Hazard at Stamford Bridge will give us a flavour of both players’ potential and is certainly a comparison to relish; but in reality both need three years in a row of scoring 20-plus goals to really put their hat in the ring. Let’s hope they can do it — with Messi now 31 and Ronaldo 33 the opportunity is there to grasp.