Hazard relishing his star role in Conte's revamped system
Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1
Eden Hazard believes that he is playing even better now than he did in 2014-15, when Chelsea last won the title, and that this Chelsea side is better than that one.
Chelsea are closing in on regaining their title after beating Arsenal 3-1 on Saturday, and are nine points clear of second-placed Tottenham Hotspur with just 14 games left. It all feels very reminiscent of two seasons ago, when Jose Mourinho's Chelsea cruised to the title facing no real challenge. Hazard was brilliant that season and won FWA Footballer of the Year.
But Hazard said that he is a more intelligent, mature player now than he was then, and that this Chelsea team of Antonio Conte's is stronger than the Mourinho side.
"I think we are in better form, as a team," said Hazard, after a mesmerising performance that has surely put paid to any lingering title hopes Arsene Wenger and his side may have harboured.
"Not just me. Two years ago I was on fire. But maybe I can score more goals this season. I already have 10. Two years ago I finished with 14. We have a lot of games to play still, so we will see."
Hazard is revelling in his role in Conte's 3-4-3 system and said that he is a more rounded player than he was under Mourinho. "With the head, with experience, you improve," Hazard said. "I think I am a better player, more complete, than I was."
During his first two seasons in England Hazard was accused of inconsistency and of drifting out of games. He now reliably takes responsibility for Chelsea, demanding the ball even in difficult situations. "Sometimes in the past, for 20 or 30 minutes, I've not touched the ball in some games," Hazard admitted. "These days I try and get on the ball, try and have lots of touches, and play my football for 90 minutes."
Hazard slightly hurt himself shrugging off Francis Coquelin on his way to scoring his brilliant goal and said that he would rather get fouled even if it hurts, rather than being anonymous. "When I get a lot of kicks, I feel really in the game," he said. "When people don't touch me, that means I'm not doing well. I'm no good."
Conte has helped to bring out the best in Hazard's attacking play while also forcing him to work hard defensively, a balance that Hazard has not always managed in his career so far. Although Chelsea do look like inevitable champions, Conte reiterated his warning that no title is won until the trophy is handed over.
Conte was a very successful player but he is driven more by the various failures and near-misses of his playing career. He lost three Champions League finals as a player. He lost the final of the 1994 World Cup and of Euro 2000 too.
"I can talk with you, bring a lot of examples from the national team," Conte said. "I lost a lot of finals. You must know my hunger in every game. The will to fight, the will to win. I know in my career I was lucky to win a lot, but also I lost a lot."