Chelsea interim boss Guus Hiddink has scarcely benefited from Eden Hazard’s return to form, but believes the Belgium playmaker can prove the difference for Antonio Conte next season.
Hazard won numerous individual awards as the leading light in Chelsea’s Premier League and Capital One Cup double in 2014-15 but, like the team’s, his decline this season has been alarming.
The 25-year-old, who has been troubled by a hip and groin problem, is finding form just as the campaign concludes against Leicester, Chelsea’s successors as champions, on Sunday. Chelsea can finish ninth at best.
Hazard has scored four times in the last four games. The run began with his first league goals of the season at Bournemouth and included the goal against Tottenham which saw Leicester crowned champions.
“I’m pleased for this moment, but I would have been more pleased if it could have happened in February,” Hiddink said.
“It’s important for him and for Chelsea that he’s almost back on his level where he can play and he’s enjoying it.
“That’s good for the future, for himself, for the Belgium team and for Chelsea.
“He’s one of the key figures in Chelsea. Not just him, that would be too much of a burden.
“But he can be on top of a very well organised foundation, he can be the man who can make a lot of difference in the game.”
Hazard felt culpable in the December sacking of Jose Mourinho, due to his dip in form, but he was not alone in underperforming.
With Chelsea out of the FA Cup and Champions League and adrift of European contention in the league, Hiddink was able to be patient in bringing Hazard back to full fitness.
And Belgium could benefit at this summer’s European Championships finals, where Conte will lead Italy before joining Chelsea as Mourinho’s permanent successor.
“After his splendid season before, he’s had a difficult season,” Hiddink said of Hazard.
“It was not (just) physically a problem for him but in a mental part.
“It’s frustrating when you’ve been the player of the year and the next year you are almost out.
“We brought him back with care, starting with a full-time game against Bournemouth and then, in a more intense game, half against Spurs, and he responded very well.
“We can be very happy with him and the team performance against Liverpool.
“He has come back to his level. He can be improving as he gets more game rhythm in the upcoming time.”