MADRID, Spain, Aug 6 – Real Madrid would love nothing more than for Eden Hazard to burst into life against Manchester City on Friday but their march to the La Liga title has shown they know very well how to win without him.
Faced with the challenge of overturning a 2-1 first-leg defeat in February, a lesser Madrid might have been looking to Hazard for inspiration as they try to shock Pep Guardiola’s side and reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
“We know we have to go there and win,” said Zinedine Zidane after the first leg.
Back in England, where he forged his reputation as one of the world’s most lethal attackers, and up against arguably the favourites to win the tournament, the stage is set again for Hazard to rescue what has been a nightmare opening year in Spain.
Yet few are billing this as a duel between Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, Belgium’s two brightest talents, or tieing Madrid’s progress to the mast of a decisive Hazard intervention, the like of which Madrid’s fans are yet to witness this season.
“We know the team wins with Eden,” said Zidane in February. “That’s why we signed him, he’s a great player.”
But the team have won without him too. The reality is Madrid have learned not to miss the player they signed for 100 million euros last year and who said at his unveiling at the Santiago Bernabeu he wanted to become the club’s next Galactico.
There is still time, but Hazard’s Madrid career so far has been a series of setbacks and comebacks, with only glimpses in between of those mazey runs, surges of acceleration or goals. In 21 appearances, Hazard has scored only once this season.
He may not be fully fit on Friday given the 11 games since La Liga resumed saw Hazard start some games, come off early in others and miss a handful altogether.
He was absent from the pictures published by the club on Wednesday of the morning’s training session at Valdebebas.
Zidane has been vague on the 29-year-old’s fitness issues but what is clear is the operation in March does not appear to have completely fixed his troublesome right ankle.
When he has been fit enough to play, Hazard has struck an unmissable chemistry with Karim Benzema and their promising partnership could wreak havoc in City’s creaky backline or, further ahead, take Madrid to another level next term.
Zidane has admitted his team’s La Liga success was built almost entirely on their defence but there is room for improvement up front, where Benzema’s brilliant form has often made up for a lack of fluency and chances.
“Even as someone who prefers exciting, attacking football, the defence is the most important thing right now,” Zidane said last month.
In that sense, Madrid’s strengths are far more threatened in Manchester by the absence of the suspended Sergio Ramos than they would be boosted by the return of Hazard, who could be kept on the bench if the conservative Zidane prefers a late push to all-out attack from the start.
There would be no better moment for peak Hazard to emerge but this is not the Madrid he joined last year, desperate and dead on their feet, at the end of a chastening season without silverware and without encouragement.
Zidane has led the transformation and he maintains complete faith, at least in public, that Hazard will come good at Madrid eventually. For now at least, it is more hope than expectation.