Hazard warning: Chelsea star flourishing in new free role

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In his latest tactical shift, the Italian coach has recently turned to a 3-5-1-1 formation, handing Hazard license to roam behind striker Alvaro Morata as a drifting No. 10.
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Reuters

Midfielder Willian scores Chelsea's fourth goal against Qarabag during their UEFA Champions League Group C match at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, on November 22, 2017.

It was around two years ago that Eden Hazard was dropped from the Chelsea team, with the defensive work demanded by then-manager Jose Mourinho not coming naturally to a flair winger.

Hazard was the footballer of the year in England at the time and was enduring a mystifying slump in form, clearly uncomfortable at being placed in such a tactical straitjacket.

There's no danger of that under Antonio Conte.

One of the big benefits of switching last season to a 3-4-3 formation, which sparked Chelsea's relentless march to the English Premier League title, was the freedom it gave to Hazard. The need to track back — "tactical discipline," as Mourinho called it — was largely a thing of the past for the Belgium international, who could focus his energy on hurting the opposition with his skill and awareness.

Conte has gone one step further this season. In his latest tactical shift, the Italian coach has recently turned to a 3-5-1-1 formation, handing Hazard license to roam behind striker Alvaro Morata as a drifting No. 10. Hazard even played as a lone striker against Qarabag in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, while Morata was rested.

It is bringing the best out of Hazard, now aged 26 and a more mature player.

Liverpool had better watch out on Saturday, when Chelsea visits Anfield for the standout game in the 13th round of the English Premier League.

Since returning from a broken ankle that caused him to miss the early part of the season, Hazard has six goals in his last seven games, including two against West Bromwich Albion last weekend. It was a breathtaking performance that West Brom manager Tony Pulis, fired two days later, could have done without.

Hazard is playing with a smile on his face again and is likely back on the radar of the big Spanish clubs who have been linked with him for so long. During the recent international break, Hazard, while stressing his happiness at Chelsea, said it would be a "dream" to play under Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, who is openly an admirer of the Belgian.

Barcelona, meanwhile, is likely to again target a move for Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho over the next transfer windows after missing out on signing him during the offseason. If the Catalans fail again, Hazard would not be the worst fall-back option.

For the moment, Hazard's remit is to help keep Chelsea on the tail of Manchester City, which leads the league by eight points over Manchester United. Chelsea is a point further back in third after four straight league victories, amid a run of six wins in its last seven matches in all competitions.

The switch to a 3-5-1-1 has Cesc Fabregas regaining his place in a bulked-up midfield alongside fit-again N'Golo Kante and summer signing Tiemoue Bakayoko. With these three players behind Hazard, who is developing an increasingly impressive understanding with Morata, Conte seems to have landed on another reliable formation.

Liverpool's defenders, back under the microscope after the team's collapse from 3-0 up to draw 3-3 with Sevilla in midweek, could have their hands full again on Saturday.

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Basel’s Michael Lang scores the only goal against Manchester United during their UCL Group A match at St Jakob-Park in Basel, Switzerland, on November 22, 2017.

On Wednesday, Chelsea advanced to the UCL knockout stage with a game to spare after beating 10-man Qarabag 4-0, securing Conte's 50th victory in all competitions with the Blues.

Barcelona needed only a point to reach the last 16 and the Spanish superpower got exactly that against Juventus. A 0-0 draw at last year's runner-up was enough to ensure top spot in Group D.

Already through, Paris Saint-Germain conceded the first goal of its European campaign in the first minute — before then unleashing its unstoppable firepower to thrash Celtic 7-1 in Paris.

A goalless draw at Basel would have been enough for Manchester United to top Group A, but the EPL club slipped to its first group stage loss, going down 0-1 to a goal conceded just a minute from time.

Still, United leads the standings with 12 points, three clear of both Basel and CSKA Moscow, which earlier won 2-0 at home to last-place Benfica.

In Group B, Neymar scored twice and set up another goal as PSG produced its biggest UCL win to extend its perfect record in the group stage this season.

PSG leads with 15 points, three more than Bayern Munich, which won 2-1 at Anderlecht. Both PSG and Bayern are guaranteed a spot in the knockout phase and will battle for group supremacy on December 5.

In Chelsea's Group C, Antoine Griezmann found the net with a stunning overhead kick as Atletico Madrid defeated AS Roma 2-0 to keep alive its hopes of advancing.

Substitute Kevin Gameiro scored the second to seal Atletico's first Champions League victory this season.

Atletico has six points, two less than Roma, with one match to play.

In Group D, Juventus will have to wait until the final round to try and qualify for the knockout stages. The Italian side remained second in the group but is only a point above Sporting Lisbon, which beat Olympiakos 3-1.

The Italian side — which reached the final in two of the last three seasons — next visits Olympiakos, while Sporting travels to Barcelona.

Barcelona, which rested Lionel Messi until the 56th minute, went closest to breaking the deadlock when Ivan Rakitic hit the post with a free kick.

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