Amidst all the diagnosis of plasticity in football’s post Abramovich, post-QSG era, there are few more resilient or more organic signals of the game’s enduring soul than a song. The travelling Chelsea supporters at Atletico Madrid had been entreated by their team to an immensely satisfying win that had bedevilled the owners’ new stadium. They gathered in the halls after the final whistle. Ever among the more gifted supports in their elaborations of song, the travelling Pensioners took the tune of Earth, Wind and Fire’s September. The objects of their serenade were two (or, going by the measure of product, three-in-two): Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante.
Par-de-ar, Tiemoue Bakayoko
Par-de-ar, together with N’Golo
Par-de-ar, they never give the ball away
It was true that Bakayoko and particularly Kante had been terrific, their performances suppurating with the same vim and assurance that had (perhaps to the partial surprise of many onlookers) coursed throughout Conte’s dominant side, with Kante’s turn in particular instantiating the acclaim he has won for his domestic English exploits, and suggesting he has plenty left in the tank for European gambols as well.
In truth, Chelsea’s display was so consummate in so many different dimensions—to the extent that it was conceded by the opposition’s stud (Simeone: “[Chelsea] were better tactically, technically, physically”) and its sybarite (Griezmann: “They were the better team in every aspect. There is nothing else to say.”)—that any given fan could have pointed to any given player as their particular champion of the evening. David Luiz re-appropriated his own recent history of majesty after a bungling relapse late in the first half, ceding the initiative to an Atletico team who, having been fraught by Chelsea, must’ve craved it; none of the game’s three goals would’ve been scored without him. Cahill’s full-blooded English command punctuated Chelsea’s backline, and with more grace than usual. Alvaro Morata made one wonder, again, at the complexities of this young player who broaches tactics with the sensitivity of a manager, yet who was as determined to rag Diego Godin senseless as any striker one can remember visiting the red-striped half of Madrid in recent years. Michy Batshuayi again demonstrated his born underdog appeal, stitching up a sublime passing display for the final goal and reaping the aftermath in such a way as only one of social media’s most gently ingenious elite athletes could.
Then, of course, there was (and ever is) Antonio Conte; the plan he sired earns him immense credit for what was the Premier League’s finest European performance since Manchester City’s 0-0 hold of Real Madrid in the 2016 UCL edition, with a heavy suspicion that it was England’s best for a longer period still.
But there was a thread to this collective joy yet more elemental, a collective buzzing that clusters around the Chelsea set-up’s most mercurial node. There is something in Eden Hazard that has grown long-awaited; for a player who sparkles despite divided priority (72 goals and 65 assists for Chelsea since joining), and who has claimed more than a quarter of his goals against Chelsea’s opposition most relative in calibre, many observers are still waiting for his ‘spike’ moment, where he makes good on his promise to cement a place alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in football’s triptych of present greatness, promise he has, it must be noted, not coveted for himself.
The distorting factor in this story arc planned out for Hazard has been oft noted of our era of the Two: in terms of sheer productivity, no one matches up to them bar one another. Neymar’s quest to sport himself alongside Messi as a discrete peer has always been faintly vainglorious, and following the circus of his move to PSG has grown to seem craven, even cynical when one considers both his behaviour on arrival and how an extended term in France may pad the stats. Remaining competitors have yet to emerge; inveterate gobblers of goals like Lewandowski and Suarez are pure focal points, and so at any rate neither compare to players such as Hazard semantically, nor to Messi and Ronaldo in disposition or scale of product. Mourinho said of Hazard, “He is not from these times. He is from the old times.” Indeed, Hazard, with his daring lack of haircut footballer-isms and much analysed weakness of ‘selfish gene’, seems from the old times, not merely in comportment, but in his play. He seems from the old times in the sense that he seems at all times to be playing with the levity of a youngster in his garden, talisman at his feet, jamming for joy. Nostalgia football.
Therefore, the light the Chelsea fans basked in as they came away prizing Atletico’s first home defeat to English opposition as the night’s main trinket seems directly divined from Hazard’s own animus. Because, here’s the thing; Hazard had performed in two worlds at once on Wednesday evening. His performance was not indifferent to calls for his elite coming-of-age; indeed, he vindicated all second-hand expectations of his performance, driving, shooting and crossing to tear a famous back line to shreds, as well as waging some of the deftest, quickest and most instinctive flick-ons imaginable to his new number 9. Yet the essence was untrammelled.
Hazard had shot on sight, with great taste of selection; yet, his mind seemed as ever to be on the state of the collective chemistry. His two most decisive contributions—the whip upon Morata’s short-back-and-sides, and his stealing in to slide a pass through to Fabregas as he stretched pyrrhically before an open goal—were reliefs of self, so to speak. Hazard is Chelsea’s most elite element, one without parallel in the club’s present administration, even as Morata’s contest mounts and the Blues have operators such as Kante doing brilliant things elsewhere than the front; and yet he is evidently a believer in the ‘better together’ kind of football. The kind that extracts four dogged Nottingham Forest defenders from distraction and rolls the ball to his short-on-confidence countryman to finish. The kind that speaks in ‘we’s, and seeks a fellow with the lay-off. The kind that makes onlookers of a certain intensity of persuasion want to sing.
Though I may be letting prejudices show by saying so, wins such as Chelsea’s on Wednesday—plucked from a confused sense of expectation, in great style late on—begin to transmute themselves into a feeling for the observer best described as one that comes with seeing a moment transform into memory before you. Best described as nostalgia football in real time. Ours is a game saturated with ill-gotten gains, with deep cynicism, and threaded richly with farce when one considers how much attention is unjustifiably given to what is fundamentally a load of old nonsense.
Meaningless. Ah, but yes, there’s its value; the light, the joy, the song. Eden Hazard may not lay claim to 400 career goals, but he is as gifted a progenitor as anyone kicking of the joy. He is most committed to it. To Eden, who has stated his ambition lays sparsely beyond the entertainment of himself and his audience, it probably feels like the garden still. But there’s room for everybody.