After a tepid start to the season Lille were flying again on Sunday night, tormenting Lyon – currently in second place in Ligue 1 – with their trusty brand of Barcelona-like football.
They pressed, they passed and they raced behind the visitors’ backline again and again in front of 43,500 spectators at their spanking new Grand Stade Lille Métropole, way over twice the number that watched the corresponding fixture last season.
Still, something wasn’t quite right. Rudi Garcia’s side couldn’t find the killer blow. Dave Farrar, commentating on the game for ESPN, hit the nail on the head. Could we imagine, he asked, what Lille would be doing to Lyon if they still had Eden Hazard?
That is, of course, the most painful of hypothetical questions for the northern club’s fans. Any national mourning period amongst French football general public for the loss of the Belgian has been eclipsed by the burst of flashbulbs that accompanied Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival in Paris.
Lille have done little wrong in attempting to deal with Hazard’s exit. They have stayed true to the sound financial and sporting principals that have turned them from plucky upstarts into serial contenders in recent years; they cashed in on a big name and subsequently spent wisely and innovatively and, habitually, they come up smelling of roses.
This time, it’s a bit different. As will be abundantly clear to anybody who has seen Hazard since he arrived in England, losing him is not like Gervinho, Adil Rami, Moussa Sow or any other departures of past seasons walking out the door. Much like in the situation that Manchester United faced when Cristiano Ronaldo left, Lille will never be able to find one player to replace Hazard, because he formed so many different functions; playmaker, passer, crowd pleaser, set-piece taker and as of last season, top goalscorer. In his final campaign at Lille, Hazard hit 20 league goals for the first time in his career.
Sensibly, Lille haven’t tried to replace him with one player. Recent Champions League winner Salomon Kalou was brought in to provide goals and penetration from wide, while France playmaker (and set-piece specialist) Marvin Martin was recruited from Sochaux to make the number 10 role his own. Neither played against Lyon. Kalou was suspended, while Martin, who has had a lukewarm start to his career in northern France, was out injured.
Without his new boys, Garcia went back to the tactical future against Lyon, starting with a mobile front three of Nolan Roux, the dazzling Dimitri Payet and Ryan Mendes. The youthful trio led Rémi Garde’s side a merry dance, and Mendes set up Roux for the opening goal inside six minutes. Yet despite an almost embarrassing superiority, the second never came, and Lyon’s Lisandro hit an improbable equaliser with ten minutes to go.
But Hazard’s cold-eyed realism wasn’t just valuable in itself; it covered a multitude of deficiencies in Garcia’s side. They were defensively weak last season, as they proved again in the midweek Champions League capitulation at home to BATE Borisov. Their high-pressing style often sees them fade in a game’s closing stages. Scoring five times and providing a number of assists in the last seven games of last season (which included six wins), Hazard pulled Lille close to an unlikely defence of their 2011 title single-handedly this spring.
Young and exciting, Hazard represented the Lille image and the end product at the same time. Despite his departure for bigger and better having been long-expected, that is why his exit has hurt this upwardly mobile club so much.