If Saturday’s Madrid derby was meant to announce one of Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid as the frontrunners at the head of this season’s La Liga pack, it failed to deliver. What we got instead was an illustration of how these two rivals, along with Barcelona, are still scrambling for a new identity. They have still to impose that on themselves let alone anyone else.
Indeed, what was served up fell way short of expectations. This was a demonstration of every insecurity that has taken hold of both teams over the early part of the season. Eden Hazard was perhaps the purest manifestation of this. This is the kind of stage he’s always wanted, but the spotlight has so far missed the Belgian.
Signed as a Galactico, Hazard has been anything but otherworldly over the first few months of his Real Madrid career. In a summer which saw around £300 million splurged in the transfer market, Hazard was Los Merengues’ marquee signing, the spiritual successor to Cristiano Ronaldo as the face of the Santiago Bernabeu billboard. A shirt seller, a ticket shifter, a difference-maker… a quintessential Real Madrid star.
Hazard made no difference against Atleti, though. In fact, he’s barely made a mark in La Liga, showing glimpses of his old self in Real Madrid’s back-to-back wins over Sevilla and Osasuna, but drifting in and out of games more frequently than Zinedine Zidane would surely like. He surely expected better.
Of course, it’s important to note that Hazard’s Real Madrid career suffered a delayed start due to injury. The Belgian is still regaining match fitness and sharpness. Sir Alex Ferguson once spoke about how Wayne Rooney needed at least a month of first team football after a spell out of action to get back up to speed. Hazard is a similar sort of player. With every match, he looks leaner and more energetic.
Nonetheless, it is dawning on Madridistas that Hazard is not Ronaldo.
The Portuguese required no such eased introduction after injury, achieving a level of physicality and productivity that nobody at the Santiago Bernabeu could come close to. Even if Hazard is able to find top form, he won’t replace the goals lost through Ronaldo’s exit to Juventus.
Replacing a player of Ronaldo’s quality and stature was never really feasible for Hazard, but the issue he has is one of perception. The era of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo has raised expectations of attacking players and Hazard, a forward who has only ever scored 20 league goals in a single season once, is the sort of player who has become a victim of this.
Too many excuses have already been made for Hazard, though. The Belgian has longed for this sort of pressure, agitating for a move to the Santiago Bernabeu for a number of years before it eventually materialised this summer.
€100 million players don’t get to hide, they don’t get long to find form, particularly at Real Madrid.
“Of course, everyone expects more from him and he knows. We are with him and he is with us,” Zidane said when asked to explain Hazard’s slow start. “You have to go game by game because he will surely be the player we want him to be. I have no doubt about Hazard or the rest of the players.”
Zidane would say this having pushed so hard for the signing of Hazard in the first place. The Frenchman’s own reputation is somewhat saddled on the success or failure of his biggest ever signing and so far there have been few signs that the pair are good for each other, that Real Madrid is good for Hazard and vice versa.