With the sense of tact and timing for which he is renowned, Paul Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, suggested at the weekend that Manchester United may wish to swap his client for Eden Hazard.
‘Pogba to Real Madrid is difficult,’ Raiola said. ‘But nothing is impossible. What if Real offer a Hazard-Pogba swap? If all parties like it, why not?’
What chutzpah. What panache. What imagination. Maybe he’s trying to get a final one in before Ed Woodward goes for good.
Perhaps all his mates were on the extension line stifling snorts and giggles as Raiola tried to sell Manchester United one last incredible pup, for old time’s sake. Whatever aggravation there has been around Pogba since he arrived in 2016, he is not Hazard at Real Madrid.
There have been good games, good times, trophies in which he has played a valuable part, performances that have stood out, haircuts that have gone like gangbusters on social media. Not as many as United would have wanted, obviously, not as many as there should have been.
But Pogba has been a disappointment, not a disaster. He’s not Alexis Sanchez. That is, perhaps, the only transfer in recent memory that has fared worse than Hazard’s £90million switch from Chelsea to Real Madrid in 2019.
Hazard’s club won La Liga last year. That is the saving grace. Yet they did it despite him, not because of him, which is hardly the point of a deal of such magnitude. Hazard was supposed to be the catalyst for success, the same script that was written for him at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
There has been no 14th Champions League trophy, no starring role domestically. On his return to Chelsea, Hazard looked not just unfit but unathletic, as if lifestyle as much as injury has taken its toll.
Who can forget his explanation for reporting 5kg overweight in his first season? ‘When I’m on holiday, I’m on holiday,’ he said. Hazard’s critics would claim he’s had his feet up ever since.
At his best, Hazard was a great player but he was never in the class of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. He would take a year off, as he did in 2015-16, which resulted in the dismissal of Jose Mourinho; he might go missing for stretches of a flat campaign.
Other years, he was the difference.
The trophies Chelsea won during Hazard’s time were almost always the result of his performances — whether over a season in the case of the two titles, or in individual matches, right up to the 2019 Europa League final, his last game.
Yet to be the new Ronaldo at Madrid required discipline. Ronaldo scored as many goals in his first three games for Madrid as Hazard has in two seasons there. Actually, he scored as many goals between the 15th and 55th minute against Racing Santander on October 23, 2010: four.
The disillusionment felt in Madrid was evident in the reaction to Hazard’s joking with his former Chelsea team-mates at the final whistle. Television pundits railed; influential newspapers gave his performance zero.
‘How can he stay in Madrid a minute longer?’ it was asked. Yet this is in many ways the least of his sins. Hazard’s laughter may have been a little too carefree in the circumstances — he’s virtually doubled up in some images — but while it infuriates the fans, this is the cosmopolitan nature of modern football.
Players move around, players make friends. A Manchester United supporter might not know anyone who follows Chelsea, but Nemanja Matic knows all the older team members from his former club.
And Pogba and Anthony Martial know N’Golo Kante, Kurt Zouma and Olivier Giroud through France, and David de Gea and Cesar Azpilicueta know each other through Spain, and Ben Chilwell and Harry Maguire played together at Leicester.
And some may be really good mates, family friends who haven’t seen each other for months. They might be looking forward to the match for that reason. So if Hazard couldn’t reach the final with Real Madrid, he’s probably very happy that his friends did. It doesn’t mean indifference.
The rash tackle that set off Hazard’s injury problems last season was made by Thomas Meunier of Paris Saint-Germain, a Belgium team-mate. Yet it shows the frustration felt with Hazard that Wednesday’s trivial post-match incident took on meaning.
These fall-outs rarely right themselves in Madrid. Not even one of the greatest goals in the history of European finals could repair relations for Gareth Bale. Madrid’s media arm is as relentless as Sergio Ramos at his peak.
The problem is that club and player are stuck. Hazard isn’t worth £90m anymore, and Madrid don’t have the financial reserves to take a hit and go again. That’s why men like Raiola get ideas. Bad ones, obviously. God loves a trier, as the saying goes, although effort is no longer Hazard’s forte.