Chelsea's Eden Hazard can show Man United first-hand the superstar they missed out on
When Eden Hazard was weighing up his options after deciding to leave Lille for the Premier League in the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson made what he thought would be the clinching pitch in terms of persuading the Belgian winger to join Manchester United.
Ferguson, who knew that Manchester City and Chelsea were also battling to sign Hazard, told the then-21-year-old that he would turn him into a world star, citing the example of Cristiano Ronaldo, who had arrived at Old Trafford as a teenager eight years earlier. Hazard was told by Ferguson that nobody could match his or United's track record when it came to polishing rough diamonds, but despite the big sell, the player chose to reject both United and City in order to sign for Chelsea.
It was a surprise choice. City were the newly crowned Premier League champions and United were still the big draw they had always been under Ferguson, but the lure of London -- sources at City and United suggested at the time that only Chelsea were prepared to meet Hazard's wage demands -- proved too great and Hazard headed for Stamford Bridge.
United and Ferguson quickly overcame the disappointment of missing out on Hazard by signing Robin van Persie from Arsenal later that summer and, with the Dutchman's goals proving so crucial in helping United reclaim the title, Chelsea's gain did not feel too much like United's loss initially. But six years on, not only have Chelsea proved to be the big winners from the Hazard pursuit in 2012, Ferguson's vision of the player's potential has also been borne out.
Ronaldo and Lionel Messi may still occupy the top two spots in world football's superstar hierarchy -- who sits where in that duopoly depends on your point of view -- but on current form, it would be difficult to find a player in more impressive form than Hazard. Kylian Mbappe is unquestionably football's rising star and the player most likely to dominate the next generation, while Antoine Griezmann, Mohamed Salah and Neymar will all have their supporters. But Hazard's hot streak from the World Cup with Belgium has now continued into the Premier League campaign with Chelsea and he appears to be back to his best under the management of Maurizio Sarri.
The Belgian has hit eight goals in all competitions for Chelsea already this season and his performances are a major reason Sarri's team go into Saturday's clash with United as joint leaders of the Premier League. The Italian coach has given Hazard the licence to play his natural game, roaming across the front three and dropping off to pick holes in opposition defences, and he is flourishing after being relieved of the more defensive duties demanded of him by Antonio Conte.
Last term, Hazard scored 12 goals in 34 league games under Conte, but he already has seven in eight under Sarri and is on course to eclipse his best season in a Chelsea shirt, when he scored 16 league goals in the 2016-17 title-winning campaign. But if Hazard is to do what Ferguson believed he was capable of and develop into the player that Ronaldo became at United, he has to smash that 16-goal barrier and hit well past 20 this season. The links with Real Madrid are genuine and Hazard is worthy of their interest, but at 27, he must now show he is capable of climbing to the next level to be one of those players preparing to shove Ronaldo and Messi from their pedestal.
Right now, he doesn't score enough goals, especially when you consider that his tally is topped up with penalties. But with Sarri giving him the freedom to focus more heavily on hurting the opposition, he now has the opportunity to elevate himself into the superstar stratosphere. The irony for Chelsea, of course, is that if Sarri does make Hazard the finished article this season, it simply makes it more likely he leaves for Madrid. Hazard has made no secret of his desire to play for the Champions League winners and next summer will be a crucial period because his contract will enter its final 12 months at Stamford Bridge.
In the end, Ferguson knew for a whole year that Ronaldo was leaving United at the end of the 2008-09 season, but he made sure that the Portuguese gave everything for the cause before heading off to Spain. There may be a similar sense of inevitability about Hazard's future, but Chelsea should simply make the most of him while they have him. Ferguson was right, Hazard can be in the same bracket as Ronaldo and United might just be about to discover that first-hand on Saturday.