Dangerman Hazard provides Chelsea’s title spark

The Belgium attacking midfielder, whose pace and trickery earned him the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Player of the Year award last week, took his goal tally for the season to 19, 14 of them in the league.

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The 24-year-old failed to convert a penalty at the end of the first half that he won after being sandwiched by two Palace defenders, but the winger made the most of a rebound off the knees of goalkeeper Julian Speroni to score guide in a rare header and set Chelsea on their way to their fifth English title, and their fourth in a decade.

Hazard has been Chelsea’s stand-out player this season and has drawn comparisons from his manager Jose Mourinho with Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.

There have been rumours of interest from Real Madrid, prompting Mourinho to joke that the Spanish giants would need to spend 200 million pounds to buy him – “100 million pounds each leg, because he’s very young,” he said last month.

Mourinho declined to single out the Belgian at a news conference after Sunday’s title clincher, preferring instead to praise all his squad for a campaign in which Chelsea have lost only two of 35 games played so far.

But it was Hazard’s guile, as well as his goals, that helped Chelsea remain on track for the title, even when the team struggled in recent months to maintain their free-scoring fluency of the first half of the season.

With first-choice striker Diego Costa ruled out for weeks by injury, and his replacement Loic Remy also sidelined, Hazard’s spark has settled several tightly-contested matches.

As well as his winner on Sunday, he scored in Chelsea’s 1-0 wins over a recovering Manchester United last month and also scored decisive goals against West Ham and Queens Park Rangers.

Chelsea spent more than 30 million pounds to bring Hazard from French side Lille to Stamford Bridge in 2012.

It now seems like a bargain.

“The manager gives me a lot of feelings and I can play my best football on the pitch which is the most important thing,” Hazard, who has grown in stature since Mourinho’s return, said.

“I know the team need me and a player like me. I am here to score, and this season all the players did well.”

(Writing by William Schomberg; additional reporting and editing by Martyn Herman)