The sight of a Chelsea No.10 twisting and turning away from defenders before hitting the net is one we’ve grown very accustomed to over the years.
Of course, nowadays, it’s Christian Pulisic donning the famous jersey, not Eden Hazard.
The United States international was lined up in January 2019 as the replacement for Hazard, who left for Real Madrid at the end of that campaign. Whether or not he has truly replaced the Belgian is a debate that continues to rage on.
But Pulisic was the one turning the Real Madrid defence inside out in the 14th minute of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final clash last week.
First, the former Borussia Dortmund man raced in behind the Los Blancos backline to meet a perfectly weighted Antonio Rudiger pass. Then, his first touch allowed him to pull free of Raphael Varane and Nacho, before he got to work putting Thibaut Courtois on the floor, allowing an easy finish into the back of the net. The first Men’s Champions League semi-final goal scored by an American. And all of this came just minutes after he’d laid it on a plate for Timo Werner, who missed another glorious opportunity from yards out.
“It was a great finish from Christian and he showed great composure when he was in front of the goal,” teammate Cesar Azpilicueta said. “He took the best decision when he was on the ball and when he is off the ball, he makes intelligent runs which are hard to defend against.
“He is an amazing player. He came here from another country, he is growing and improving with every game and I’m very pleased for him to get his goal because he is a very important player for the team.”
Pulisic now has six goals across all competitions this season with four of them have come in his last eight appearances since the start of April. His strike in Madrid last week was the icing on top of a fine individual performance which saw him complete five dribbles (bettered only by N’Golo Kante’s six), create a match-high three chances and help the defensive effort for the Blues with two tackles.
By contrast, Hazard has just three goals and one assist for Madrid this season, and only four and seven respectively in 39 appearances since he joined the club. His time at Los Blancos has been plagued by fitness concerns. Indeed, Hazard cut an isolated, frustrated figure from the bench last week, touching the ball just 12 times in 24 minutes and failing to complete a dribble, set up a chance or get a shot on target.
Pulisic is hitting the right form at the right time and Tuchel, for one, believes Pulisic ,already the golden boy of the United States National Team, is starting to live up to the billing as Chelsea’s new No.10 and Hazard replacement.
“Absolutely it’s a good thing, this decision to take this number, it sets the tone and it shows the determination, and the dreams that [Christian] wants to fulfil and his own demands to himself,” Tuchel told reporters on Tuesday.
“This is a very good part of his decision, the downside of this decision is that people will always compare you with any number 10 in the world, and with the number 10s at a big club like Chelsea.
“So this is the downside and you have to live up to that. But right now he is in a good place and he has huge impact to our team.
“So everything is good and we can be very happy tomorrow if he continues to make his mark.”
After last week’s first leg, former Liverpool defender and TV pundit Jamie Carragher backed Pulisic to have a “brilliant career” but didn’t think he could match the standard set by Hazard. Of course, prior to the match, Pulisic himself was keen to stress he isn’t interested in emulating Hazard at all. Rather, he wants to focus on creating his own legacy.
“He was an incredible player at this football club of course,” Pulisic said. “I definitely looked up to him. I am not comparing myself to him in any way or trying to be like him.
“I am my own player, doing my best for this club. Obviously, he was a massive player for this club and obviously it is an honour to hear comparisons like that, but I still have a way to go.”
Even so, Pulisic will have another chance to push Hazard further into Chelsea’s rearview mirror on Wednesday. Needing to overturn an away goal deficit, Tuchel expects Zinedine Zidane to revert to a more attacking formation, which in turn will open up more opportunities for Chelsea to hit Madrid in transition.
On a per 90-minute basis, Pulisic has attempted and completed more dribbles than any other Chelsea player in combined Premier League and Champions League play this season. His pace, skill and direct nature will make him a nightmare for the likes of Eder Militao and the returning Sergio Ramos, who must avoid one-on-ones with the American at all costs.
But even if they can limit Pulisic’s ability to run at them, the fact that Madrid have to find a goal means they will be unable to stop him sprinting in behind them. As he showed last week, the forward is capable of putting this tie to bed in those situations.
Another inspired performance against Real Madrid in the second leg from Pulisic and Chelsea fans won’t be thinking much about their old No.10 anymore. They’ll be dreaming of their new one leading them to Champions League glory.