Hazard will be a tasty signing for Manchester City despite 'Burgergate'
There is a £40m price tag on Europe's most wanted winger, who is likely to be the latest joker heading for Eastlands
He's known to lark about at airports a bit and there was an incident with a burger a while back, but neither has any bearing on the scramble which is likely to take place this summer for Lille's 21-year-old Belgian winger Eden Hazard. Manchester City anticipate competition from Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and perhaps Real Madrid. Liverpool's director of football, Damien Comolli, has been interested. But the early indications suggest that the pursuit of Hazard, much like that of Samir Nasri last summer, is one City will win.
Spurs have made all the early running for a player who has extraordinary strength and balance for one who stands 5ft 7in tall. It was a classic Harry Redknapp sting, involving Redknapp talking about Hazard a fair bit, though the other clubs in the chase are understood to feel there are plenty of ifs and buts about the north London manouevres.
The prospect of regular football does seem to be right up there with money as Hazard's prime motivating factors and Redknapp can certainly tell Hazard that he has few alternative options – only Aaron Lennon in the wide-right role. But the prevailing view is that Tottenham will not be willing to meet Lille's asking price – £30m at the very least and as much as £40m – unless something as radical as the sale of Gareth Bale occurs. Champions League football, another imperative for Hazard who has enjoyed it at Lille, is no longer a certainty for Tottenham with Chelsea resurgent, and neither is Redknapp's presence guaranteed beyond this summer.
Arsène Wenger won't pay Lille's asking price, Comolli's Liverpool are in a mess and bound only for the Europa League, which leaves United and City as the prime British contenders. Lille's willingness to cash in, 15 months after strengthening their bargaining position with a new contract for Hazard, was evident when Sir Alex Ferguson attended Lille's match with Lyons last month. The Lille manager, Rudi Garcia, whose decision to build a team around Hazard proved to be an inspired one as the side unexpectedly took last year's French title, told the player in the Stade de Gerland dressing room before that game: "Ferguson is here. Show him what you can do."
But United, equipped with Antonio Valencia, Luis Nani and Ashley Young, do not exactly need another wide player, while City are crying out for one. For once, this is a transfer target whom City can tell with some certainty, "You'll be playing," because there is an acknowledgement from the highest level of the club that it is pace and width which City most lack. Hazard can virtually pick his wing – just as Adam Johnson might have been able to do this season had he only been able to apply himself in the way City's manager, Roberto Mancini, has wanted. That Johnson has not is one of the biggest exasperations of a season which has brought its fair share to the Etihad.
Operating on the left side and cutting in has tended to be Hazard's favoured location though, in the manner of the modern winger he will switch, and regardless of the flank on which he operates he will bring with him a reputation as a player who knows his own mind, likes a joke and is an infectious presence in the dressing room. That predisposition to be on the field of play a lot was underlined by the incident known in his native Belgium as Burgergate and which was a product of Hazard's sometimes tempestuous relationship with the Belgium national coach, Georges Leekens.
During the most difficult period of Hazard's Lille career last season, when his club manager Garcia kept him on the bench in an attempt to let him "breathe" after a deep dip in form, Leekens chipped in to say that he must work harder, while his national assistant, Marc Wilmots, went so far as to say that the player possessed a "lazy" mentality and that an uncritical French media were blind to his weaknesses. Garcia protested, saying he thought Leekens' observations were "excessive" and it was against this backdrop that Hazard responded badly to his 60th-minute substitution in a friendly against Turkey last June. He went immediately to the dressing room and was caught by television cameras eating a burger outside the stadium – with the game still going on.
French observers, who insist Hazard broke no rules, seem to view this incident more indifferently than the Belgians. The French seem to cut him more slack than his own countrymen and they've always felt he's one of their own – literally so, when the France Football Federation tried to tie him down to its ranks. Hazard decided to play for his native country instead. "I feel 99 per cent Belgian and 1 per cent French," he said at the time. He was born in the Belgian town of La Louvière, but pursued his career in the game just across the border in Lille, believing French youth development was superior to that in Belgium. He wasn't short of advice. His father, mother and grandfather were all footballers.
His Belgian team-mates, who can be a serious lot, know he is not indisposed to the odd practical joke. It was after the national side's 1-1 draw in Greece, his most recent game for Belgium, that while heading through airport security he capitalised on the fact that the Twente winger Nacer Chadli had to remove his watch. He hid the item, prompting a search in which security staff came under suspicion. Chadli asked staff to empty out bins and some players refused to board the flight home until it was located. Hazard's team-mates were not universally delighted that he waited so long before revealing the watch that the flight was seriously delayed.
Hazard is popular in the dressing room, nonetheless. Not the brightest player, perhaps, in a talented generation of Belgians, who include City's erudite captain, Vincent Kompany. Even 140-character tweets can tend to be riddled with spelling and grammatical mishaps. But his willingness last week to bet his next haircut on his boast that he would win a volleying competition after training at Lille reveals that he can give and take when the jokes are being handed out. Hazard lost the forfeit, which explains why he ran out for last weekend's 2-1 home win over Toulouse at the Stade Metropole sporting a Mohican. He converted the penalty and provided his 12th assist of the season in that game to send his side two up in half an hour.
Hazard's 18-year-old brother, Thorgan, plays for Lille's big rivals Lens, though it is his 16-year-old brother, Kylian, in the Lille youth system who is the source of most excitement and perceived in France as possibly an even bigger talent. But for now City's sights are on Eden, even though a counter-bid cannot be discounted at Real Madrid, where the director of football, Zinedine Zidane, has said the player "will be a major star in the future. I would take him to Real Madrid with my eyes closed".
Kompany is understood to have been educating City on his compatriot's qualities. The money, the starting position and the Champions League are all there in east Manchester, as is a desire to sign him, which will be maintained whether the Abu Dhabi review of the season decrees that Mancini should stay or leave. City know a bit about high jinks from expensive foreign acquisitions but the feeling is that this one also offers more of the certainties they are looking for.
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