Football: In-form Eden Hazard a fillip for Chelsea

From left: Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Gary Cahill and David Luiz during training. The team face Roma away in their bid to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages before hosting Manchester United in a crack Premier League tie at the weekend.
From left: Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Gary Cahill and David Luiz during training. The team face Roma away in their bid to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages before hosting Manchester United in a crack Premier League tie at the weekend.PHOTO: REUTERS

Belgian playmaker ready to snap at Roma and United after return to form

LONDON • It is too early to suggest Eden Hazard is back to his best but three goals in as many games is an encouraging sign ahead of a big week for Chelsea.

The club will try to edge nearer a spot in the Champions League last 16 after their Group C trip to Roma today and then attempt to close the nine-point gap to Manchester City by overcoming second-placed Manchester United at home.

And Hazard's return to form could not have been more welcome. After he fractured his right ankle on international duty in June, Chelsea have had to wait for him to make a regular dent in the opposition, but the way the Belgian relished his role as his team's go-to man at Bournemouth on Saturday reflected a maturity Antonio Conte touched on afterwards.

The Chelsea manager said: "Now he is playing well and I saw a good commitment from Eden with the ball and without the ball. He is the type of player who needs to be involved with the ball to be active."

Hazard himself is confident he has overcome his injury concerns, as Chelsea ended a poor run of results with a League Cup win over Everton sandwiched between league wins over Watford and Bournemouth.

The playmaker is hopeful his team can carry their momentum forward.

"I'm training hard, the injury is the past," he told the club's website. "A big week is coming. We are full of confidence now, two big games in Champions League and Premier League. We are ready to play both."

Conte will lead the Blues back to his homeland for the first time since leaving his job as Italy manager for Stamford Bridge in July last year, with key midfielder N'Golo Kante also in line for a return.

But in what could be a season-defining week, the 48-year-old said that he would take it one game at a time.

He said: "But for sure we have to try to do this. It won't be easy but first of all, I think we have to go game by game.

"Now the most important game for us is Roma in the Champions League. Then after this game, we must start to think about Manchester United."

The reverse fixture, a 3-3 draw last Wednesday, had been marred by racist chanting directed at Antonio Rudiger. But he does not expect a repeat, saying: "No, I don't know. I think that Roma supporters are very passionate. I'm not sure about this. Roma's fans are very passionate. In the game, you feel this.

"I have players with a good experience of facing this type of situation (experiencing intimidating atmospheres). We're there to play football but we want to try to play better than in the first game."

German defender Rudiger made 72 appearances for the Serie A side before joining Chelsea in July and has played 12 times for the Premier League champions.

The winner of the game at Rome's Olympic Stadium will be well-placed to reach the last 16 with both teams still to face struggling Qarabag, who managed to hold Atletico Madrid in Azerbaijan at home a fortnight ago.

The Spanish club, still searching for their first win in Europe this season, are in danger of missing out on the knockout stages for the first time since failing to qualify at all in 2012-13. They have made a solid start in LaLiga and are unbeaten in their first 10 games, but sit eight points adrift of leaders Barcelona in fourth place after five draws.

THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2017, with the headline 'Likely Hazard for Blues' rivals'. Print Edition | Subscribe