Adapting to the Premier League from European climes is no easy task. Even the great Dennis Bergkamp struggled for a while at Arsenal, early doors.
The game moves at a quicker pace in England and is more physical. Admittedly the days of a centre half going straight through a striker from behind to 'let him know he's there' have long gone. But defenders are no less uncompromising when they know they're going to win the ball and are far bigger and stronger than the protagonists of the good ol' days of boggy pitches and socks down at the ankles. Kompany, Huth, Vermaelen, et al ... these are big lads with bad breath who aren't afraid to use it.
Which is why the immediate impact of Belgian Eden Hazard at Chelsea is all the more remarkable.
This boy appears to have the lot. Incredible first touch, blistering pace, un-erring accuracy with a pass, and strength on the ball due to his low centre of gravity - you don't get compared to Lionel Messi if you're not half decent. His arrival appears to have transformed the Chelsea machine - could £32m and £170,000 a week actually be a bargain?
Of course Chelsea is a football behemoth - a monster that bestrides the game with an approx net value of US$400m dollars. Roman Abramovich moved the goalposts and raised the bar by taking on the Stamford Bridge debt and bank-rolling the club. He's worth over $US12 billion you see, so it's all just loose change to him.
Coupled with the way Chelsea have played in recent seasons, I guess that's why I've never been a big fan. Sturdy, powerful, metronomic ... Essien, Drogba, Terry and Lampard have epitomised the men in blue. Even though Dutchman Arjen Robben had a couple of injury-laden seasons, the winger spent more time on his backside than a teething toddler. Nah, they weren't for me.
But a revolution has taken place and Hazard is at its fulcrum. Three matches, three victories - admittedly games they were expected to win - and a bucketful of entertainment. The Roberto Di Matteo roadshow is in full effect. An additional bonus is the arrival of another player - yes, Fernando Torres has finally turned up.
Against Newcastle on Saturday, the newly confident blond bombshell attempted a round-the-back flick cross to the far post. The ball itself fell short, but who cares? Fly Spanish one, fly. Can you hear the drums Fernando...?
It was raining at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea were top of the league once more. The helmeted Cech was flying through the air, Bertrand charged forward and shot from the edge of the box, the waspish Mata drifted from flank to flank and the garden of Eden was truly blossoming. And who wasn't playing? Terry and Lampard ... hmmm, interesting.
Admittedly last season's Champions League victories over Barcelona and Bayern Munich were remarkable and totally unpredictable - but I don't think anyone would deny that they were a tad fortunate. And it's always nice if you can combine success with a certain degree of style.
When Chelsea won the EPL in 2010, they scored 103 goals - what price similar stats this season? And the revolving midfield/attacking options of Hazard/ Mata/Torres/Bertrand is Barcelona-esque in its conception. Players allowed to take up more of a free role in order to pull out defenders and create space in behind, something Torres has been crying out for. His work-rate has also never been in question, and while his replacement at Anfield, Luis Suarez, is more of a target man for Liverpool, I believe Torres to be more of an all-round contributor to the team - and a bit less controversial.
Also worth noting is that Belgium are FIFA-ranked outside the top 50 (although England are third!) and haven't qualified for a major tournament in a decade. The stress of high-profile internationals will not weigh on Hazard's shoulders - he can just enjoy his football. He has played for one club previously, Lille in France, who oversaw his development from boy to man. He also became a father a couple of years ago, suggesting he may have had to grow up a little bit quicker than some of the other prima-donnas in the Premier League. In three games he has contributed four assists, won two penalties and scored one from the spot. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, he won't be allowed as much freedom on the pitch as he was against Wigan, Reading and a very tired Newcastle - who had a Europa League tie in Greece two days previously - the rest of the EPL will now have his number.
Chelsea have a Super Cup match this weekend against against Athletico Madrid and the fixtures will soon start piling up once the Champions League kicks off. Citeh's David Silva was a prime example last season of a player in the mould of Hazard who just couldn't maintain his incredibly high standards.
When the Blues do lose their early form, how will they respond? And this is the reason why I didn't pick Chelsea to challenge for the top four this season. I honestly don't believe Di Matteo has the management nous to ascend them to the very top. Player power is too much of a factor and there has been a lack of dressing-room respect for the 'gaffer' for too long.
However if they keep playing the way they have been, I will happily be proven wrong - and with QPR away and Stoke at home up next then five straight wins are on the cards. I would suggest Hazard is already a hot tip for Player of the Year and a three-horse race for the title could make this campaign even more thrilling than last season. Chelsea have laid down a marker - but just how far can they go?
West Ham vs Fulham, SS2 11.30pm
Tottenham vs Norwich, SS2 2am
Manchester City vs QPR, SS2 4am
Wigan vs Stoke, SS2 6.30am (delayed)
Swansea vs Sunderland, SS2 8.30am (delayed)
West Bromwich Albion vs Everton, SS2 10.30am (delayed)
Liverpool vs Arsenal, SS2 12.30am
Southampton vs Manchester United, SS2 3am
- © Fairfax NZ News
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