Real Madrid’s victory over Eibar in many ways summed up their season so far.
They showed off some of the best parts of their game – their midfield muscle had little trouble controlling proceedings, and they were clinically ruthless in front of goal. Yet their dominance was underpinned with a mental fragility that had the visitors fancying themselves as they attempted to overturn a three-goal advantage.
The manner in which they finished the game would not have had Zinedine Zidane praising his players to the heavens in the pristine Bernabeu dressing room, but when the meticulous Frenchman issues his debriefings after a mission accomplished, there will be a couple of players exempt from any real criticism.
One of them will be Eden Hazard.
So far, the Belgian has shown the occasional hint of the player who scored over 100 goals for Chelsea, but too often it has been undercut with something else. Between criticisms of his fitness and his struggles with injury, too often he has looked distracted by what is going on off the pitch and in the physio room.
That was the case in a bleak 1-0 defeat to Levante before the pandemic-enforced break, as he played a passive role off the left in an ineffectual forward line.
Three months without football later, you might have forgiven Hazard for fixating on his situation and falling further into the doldrums. But whatever he’s been doing with his time off, it looks to have worked.
Starting for the first time since February, from the first minute against Eibar, he looked rejuvenated. Though rusty and still a little tentative, the sluggish, ponderous player we previously struggled to recognise as Hazard was replaced by a sparky, nimble live-wire, armed with the rudimentary aim of getting on the ball and carrying it forward.
He only lasted an hour before Zidane rung in the changes to keep his charges fresh, but in that time he was heavily involved in three Real goals – pressing for the first, selflessly laying off Sergio Ramos for the second, and hitting the by-line and forcing the rebound from Marko Dmitrovic for Marcelo to lash in the third.
In particular, his relationship with Karim Benzema was striking. In previous appearances together, the two have lacked an understanding, leading to a fragmented and fractured forward line. But there was no sign of that here.
Hazard – starting on the left before switching flanks with the lively Rodrygo – looked as if he’d spent his entire career playing on the Frenchman’s shoulder, knowing precisely when to come short and when to run in behind to take advantage of his impressive hold-up play.
All-in-all, this wasn’t Hazard back at his best – his almighty track record being what it is, we’ll know when that happens.
What it was, however, was a reminder that the Hazard whose Premier League performances bordered on Ballon d’Or quality is still buried in there somewhere. And with Real facing a hectic slate of fixtures in the weeks and months to come, Zidane will be all to keen to give that player plenty of chances to further emerge.