Chelsea have finally discovered their own Lionel Messi and heir to Eden Hazard
Christian Pulisic was fouled 11 times during Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Porto, the most of any player for the Blues since 2011.
Eden Hazard became used to pain during his time as a Chelsea player. For 90 minutes, usually twice a week, he would be kicked and fouled more than any of his team-mates. Yet he always returned for more. In fact, he welcomed the physical batterings.
“I have always thought if there is a game and there have been a lot of fouls on me then I have been playing well for the team, so that means we’re having a good match,” he explained in an interview with the Independent in 2015.
“I have been used to taking the knocks. The more I take, the happier I am. It always makes me want to outdo them but in a football way and I don’t want to make their life a misery by kicking them. I want to hurt the opponent in terms of football.”
Perhaps Hazard is paying for that punishment now. The most-fouled player of the 2010s (per OptaJean) has struggled with injuries since leaving Chelsea for Real Madrid in the summer of 2019. The Belgian star has made only 36 appearances for the Spanish giants since his £140million transfer and has netted just four goals.
It was always Hazard’s dream to play for Real Madrid, to work under his childhood idol Zinedine Zidane. That Chelsea were able to keep him at Stamford Bridge for seven seasons – many of which ended with a trophy or two – was an achievement in itself.
But the Blues knew that they would have to sell the 30-year-old at the end of the 2018/19 campaign. So they searched for a potential replacement and settled on a young star plying his trade in Germany: Christian Pulisic.
A deal for the then 20-year-old was agreed in January 2019, six months before Hazard’s departure. Forward planning at its finest from Chelsea. Pulisic linked up with the Blues first-team squad in July 2019, just nine days after helping the USMNT reach the final of that summer’s Gold Cup.
It was a statement of intent from Pulisic, a sign that he was determined to make an immediate impact with the Premier League giants. It didn’t quite happen. Frank Lampard eased him into the starting XI and it proved the right strategy with the American then scoring six goals and claiming three assists in eight appearances between October and November.
Injury halted Pulisic’s momentum, something that has been a recurring theme for him at Chelsea. But he again proved during last season’s Project Restart fixtures just how devastating he could be, with five goals and four assists in ten matches.
The current campaign hasn’t been easy for Pulisic. There have been injuries, a struggle for form, and a battle to secure a place in Thomas Tuchel’s starting XI.
It wasn’t until March 13, six weeks after the German coach took charge at Stamford Bridge, that Pulisic was named in the side for a Premier League game. Tellingly, he has started the two that followed that trip to Elland Road and has struck three goals.
That form ensured he was included from the off against Porto last night. Chelsea went into the quarter-final second leg against the Portuguese side with a two-goal lead, but they were going to have to work hard and battle their way beyond Sergio Conceicao’s men.
Pulisic found that out the hard way.
Throughout the contest, the 22-year-old was kicked, clipped and brought down.
Come full time, the USMNT star had been fouled on 11 occasions, the most of any player in a Champions League game since Lionel Messi against Real Madrid in 2011. Not even Hazard had faced such a barrage of fouls while in a Chelsea shirt.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy at all and they showed that,” Pulisic told Chelsea’s website. “They bring a lot of intensity and didn’t make it easy for us at any point of this tie. But in the end, we just edged them out.”
He added: “It felt like I took a lot of fouls out there but all in all, I’m pretty healthy so I’m happy about that.
“I’m pleased with the way I’m playing. It hasn’t been an easy season by any means, for me personally and for the team. But I’ve worked really hard to get to this point and I’m feeling good right now.”
Pulisic has four goals in his last five games for club and country. And his stoic display against Porto was another sign the winger is slowly recapturing his best form.
He is likely to face more challenges, especially with so much at stake for Chelsea. Pain will become an old friend. But if Pulisic is to truly emulate Hazard at Stamford Bridge, he must take it all and smile. For it is a sign that he is guiding the Blues to success.