It was decided Eden Hazard would see one of the finest NBA surgeons in America when he needed his ankle operation this year, given his movement on the pitch is similar to basketball players.
The Belgium forward went up and down the pitch for seven seasons at Chelsea, dictating attacks like a “shooting guard” and withstanding impact on his body like a Chicago Bull or Detroit Piston.
His schedule was as busy as an NBA player too, averaging more than 50 games a season while playing in the Premier League and needing an operation in 2017 on the ankle that troubled him during his first season at Real Madrid, following his £130million move for the start of last season.
The question now is whether Hazard will return to the form seen at Chelsea, or has playing almost 700 games in his career so far taken its toll?
Hazard will be absent from the Belgium team facing England this weekend at Den Dreef in Leuven for the UEFA Nations League clash, after testing positive for Covid-19 just before the international break. It was the latest setback in a frustrating 18 months since arriving at the Bernabéu. He has already missed more games for Real than in his entire time at Chelsea.
Despite his ankle surgery three years ago, fitness was not a major issue during his seven seasons at Stamford Bridge. He was fit more often than not, never dipping under 43 matches per campaign.
That is in total contrast to life in La Liga, with his ankle problem stemming back to a tackle from his Belgium team-mate Thomas Meunier when Real faced Paris-Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
The foul itself looked nothing extraordinary, although under closer inspection his studs were planted in the turf as he was caught by Meunier’s tackle, with his ankle twisting as he fell to the turf.
He suffered a fracture to the ankle in February, against Levante, when it was decided he would travel to Dallas for an operation with Dr Eugene Curry, renowned in basketball, to replace a titanium plate from a previous operation.
Since then there were a few normal post-surgery issues which were expected and he made five La Liga starts when football returned after closing its doors for the coronavirus pandemic. He also played in the defeat to Manchester City when Real were knocked out of the Champions League.
Those who have worked with him say he would often shed weight in pre-season after putting on kilos during the summer. That was no different ahead of this season when he reported for duty for Zinedine Zidane’s squad.
He was in the frame to play against Valladolid on Sep 30 when he felt a muscle spasm in training after taking a knock. But it turned out to be a strain, setting him back further. Hazard did not get on the pitch for Real this season until the end of October, then after three appearances came the blow of needing to isolate after testing positive for coronavirus along with team-mate and Casemiro.
By his own admission, last season was the worst of his career and the clock is also ticking on his peak years. When he was unveiled at his new home two summers ago, on a sweltering early evening in the Spanish capital, he remarked that he was “at the best moment of my career, 27 to 32”.
He will be 30 in January, giving him a further two seasons before his game may need adapting as he edges towards the 1000-game milestone for country and clubs. For Belgium, the Golden Generation are approaching their 30s and new talent such as Jérémy Doku is emerging, gliding past defenders like Hazard did for Chelsea.
“I’m not a Galactico. Not yet,” was the slightly awkward answer when he was presented to Madrid fans. More than 50,000 showed up after office hours to watch him wave and do keepy-uppies. He was sat next to Emilio Butragueño, admitting he preferred playing to talking about himself.
Real have not spent that type of money on a signing since and neither are they likely to in the current landscape of the transfer market. Hazard will remain their last marquee signing for a while, while Chelsea may consider it one of the best pieces of business they have negotiated.
Hazard had 12 months left on his contract when he was sold and getting a deal worth £130million in the current climate would not be possible. After a transfer ban for one window and keeping his powder dry in January, Frank Lampard spent that money in the post-Covid market.
Kai Havertz and Timo Werner have arrived from Bundesliga but Lampard looks like he has a replacement for Hazard in the form of Hakim Ziyech from Ajax, who cost £40million.
“Those sort of players don’t get replaced on a whim,” said Lampard. “With Hakim we had the potential to bring in someone with real different qualities to what we’ve had in recent years in terms of a left-footed, right-sided player which was his main position at Ajax.”
Real started their move for Hazard a year before signing him, with president Florentino Perez first speaking to him at the Best FIFA Football Awards about coming to Spain. Over a year after finally getting him, they are still waiting to see the best of him.