Hazard is our Messi, says Blues' Ivanovic
CHELSEA believe Eden Hazard is the third-best performer in world football. So, it was little surprise when the Belgium winger was voted the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Player of the Year on Sunday.
According to his club manager Jose Mourinho, only World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Barcelona great Lionel Messi are in better form than the 24-year-old Hazard.
To the fans of Premier League champions-elect Chelsea, their No. 10 is the modern-day equivalent of the much-loved Gianfranco Zola in both style and substance.
"He's a kid but he knows that he is one of the three best players in the world, he is coping with that responsibility," Mourinho said recently.
"I've had lots of stars. Hopefully, in every club I've worked I've had stars, but he is the humble star."
The diminutive Zola charmed supporters up and down the land with his twinkle-toed trickery and endearing humility during the Italian's seven years at Stamford Bridge between 1996 and 2003.
One opposition defender described the moment Zola left him with "twisted blood", so good was the dazzling footwork, and the same can now be said of the quicksilver Hazard.
Such is his importance to Chelsea that Mourinho took the 1.73m tall Belgian to one side before last week's 1-0 home victory over Manchester United to tell him that he was their potential match winner - and he duly obliged with the only goal of the game.
"Physically and mentally, he's getting very, very strong," said Mourinho. "He understands his role. He understands clearly that especially in a moment where the team doesn't have all its power, he understands when the game becomes strategic. He understands his talent is fundamental for the team."
It was third time lucky for Hazard on Sunday, because he was also on the shortlists for the main prize and the PFA Young Player of the Year awards in each of the previous two seasons.
He was also runner-up for the young player award on Sunday, behind Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane.
Hazard becomes the second Chelsea player to win the PFA vote, after captain John Terry in 2005, and his teammates are in no doubt as to his value to the side.
"Eden is a quality player and he has the qualities to play even better," said defender Branislav Ivanovic earlier this year. "It's hard to say how close he is to Messi, but for us at Chelsea, he is like Messi is for Barcelona."
The London side started the campaign playing silky, flowing football as they sought glory in four different competitions.
The sheer grind of playing three games a week all season has led to inevitable tiredness creeping into their performances in recent weeks, but Hazard has been consistency personified.
"I'm playing my best season ever," he said. "With my experience, I succeed in managing the strong and weak moments in a game better.
"Last year, I played a good season, but I disappeared in some games. This season, I can't really remember a game where I really wasn't into it.
"It's impossible to be on top form in 40 or 50 games in a season, but I've been the best player in the team several times."