Chelsea: Antonio Conte's New Suit May Finally Be Eden Hazard's Chance to Excel

In the 78th minute, the sound of seats clattering back into their default position reverberated around Stamford Bridge on Saturday (December 2) as the fourth official held up his electronic board. Apart from the three goals Chelsea had scored, the loudest ovation came when the home fans rose to their feet as Eden Hazard left the field.

Much to Newcatle's relief, Antonio Conte had one eye on Tuesday's visit of Atletico Madrid in the final group game of the Champions League, and Conte wanted to make sure his best player would be fresh.

Hazard's departure from the pitch, after scoring two goals, dazzling the home fans and dizzying the Newcastle defense, saw the majority of the stadium rise. They were enthralled and entertained, thankful to be able to boast a player of Hazard's quality who played a crucial role in this 3-1 win.

Without the midweek fixture, Hazard would have surely stayed on and a hat-trick would have been even more of a certainty. It was a surprise he didn't leave the stadium with the match ball, anyway, but was denied on more than one occasion by Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow. Yet even more of a surprise was that it would have been only Hazard's second hat-trick in the Premier League—his only one came against Newcastle in February 2014.

For a player frequently regarded as being on the periphery of greatness, gradually gaining on the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, competing to take their place when graduation day comes, it is goals that have been missing from Hazard's game. Last season's tally of 17 needs to be bettered. His double on Saturday took him up to eight for the campaign, and it is Conte's tinkering of tactics that has allowed that.

Eden Hazard
Eden Hazard at Stamford Bridge, London, December 2. Hazard overtook Gianfranco Zola's goalscoring tally with two goals against Newcastle on Saturday. Catherine Ivill/Getty

Conte described himself as a "tailor" last season, in need of finding the perfect suit for his Chelsea team. In the end, the 3-4-3 Italian slim fit worked beautifully, but Conte knew he would need to make adjustments this season. So, at times, he pulls Chelsea in at the middle and loosens out the top in a 3-5-2 formation.

"Eden, for us, is an important player because with him we can change our system," Conte said. "He can play as a second striker or a number 10 when we play 3-4-3."

After Dwight Gayle's 12th minute goal stunned the Premier League champion, Chelsea and Hazard were brought to life. Cesc Fabregas, playing in his quarterback role, picked out Hazard with a perfect 40-yard pass that the Belgian controlled instantly. He looked to poke it past Darlow but the goalkeeper stretched out a strong arm.

The visiting fans had to admire the effort from their players who scampered after Hazard and his strike partner Alvaro Morata every time they touched the ball. Rafael Benitez, the Newcastle manager, was well aware of the threat the duo held.

"We knew [Hazard] really well," Benitez said, returning to the club for the first time since his stint as interim coach in 2012. "It's not just a free role. He has good movements. You cannot control everyone."

And, as much as they tried, it took just 21 minutes for Hazard to escape the attention of the Newcastle players. N'Golo Kante's cross into Morata, who has scored five times with his head in the league this season, drew the attention of Florian Lejeune and Chancel Mbemba. Lejeune's outstretched leg prevented the ball from reaching Morata but fed it straight into the path of Hazard who drilled his shot low into the ground and it zipped past Darlow.

It is this freedom of movement, to flutter in and around Morata, that has enabled Hazard to excel. Since the end of October, when Hazard eased into the role of second striker, he has had the most shots on target of any player in the Premier League, the most successful dribbles and is second only to Liverpool's Mohamed Salah for most goals, with five.

But when Morata scored his ninth of the season to put Chelsea ahead, it was Victor Moses who played the crucial role. He drove to the byline and fizzed the ball across the six-yard box for Morata to tap in from three yards out. Lejeune and Mbemba should have done better.

Hazard continued to be the danger man for Newcastle, though, picking up the ball and driving at the defense. One shot was deflected wide and then he had a claim for a penalty after dancing through a crowd of Newcastle players. First Lejeune, then Mbemba and finally Ciaran Clark attempted to stop him before hitting the turf. The referee, Kevin Friend, showed no interest—but just minutes later he was pointing to the spot.

Fabregas played in Moses, chased by Matt Ritchie. The Nigerian was first to the ball, poking it forward, before falling to the ground under Ritchie's lunge. Hazard converted the penalty with a Panenka, dinking it into the middle of the goal as Darlow dived to his left—possibly a tribute to Antonin Panenka as it came on his 69th birthday.

Another great of the game, Gianfranco Zola, was also remembered at Stamford bridge on Saturday as Hazard's double saw him overtake the Italian for Chelsea goals, reaching 81. The Stamford Bridge faithful have shown Hazard that he is held in as high a regard as Zola in these parts, but he'll need to continue this prolific run if he wants to go even higher. Conte's new suit may just help him do that.