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World Cup preview: Chelsea's midfield maestros


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With the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicking off in precisely three weeks, TalkChelsea will be counting down to the event with a number of special player previews.

The first of these articles will look at three of Chelsea's midfield maestros as they look to once again prove themselves on the biggest stage.

Eden Hazard is Belgium's leading light, and his nation - most people's dark horses for the tournament - will be reliant on the former Lille man replicating his Premier League form should his side progress to the latter stages of the competition.

Similarly, Oscar is one of Brazil's most talismanic figures, and though the Blues starlet faded away after a bright start to the season, he will no doubt play a pivotal role for the much-fancied home nation.

Frank Lampard will constitute the final part of this player preview in what is his third World Cup finals. Lampard, who was denied his first finals goal in South Africa when his stunning volley - which landed a clear yard and a half behind Manuel Neuer's goalline - was inexplicably not given in a game that England went on to lose 4-1. That strike would have levelled the game at 2-2, and prompted discussion over additional referees and the installation of goalmouth technologies in the Premier League.

Eden Hazard

Alongside Liverpool's Luis Suarez and also Yaya Toure of Manchester City, Hazard was one of the Premier League's finest performers during the 2013/14 season. In a campaign that represented a coming-of-age for the Belgian, Hazard finished the campaign as Chelsea's top goalscorer, with his exploits earning him the prestigious PFA Young Player of the Year award. Along with club-mates Petr Cech and Gary Cahill, he was also named in the PFA Premier League team of the season - not at all bad for a second season in English football.

In truth, Hazard had started the season in less than spectacular fashion. Despite a fine goal ahead of the penalty shoot-out defeat to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup in late August, the young Belgian was being outperformed by fellow midfield magician Oscar, and his place in the side was under threat as José Mourinho demanded a greater work-rate and level of defensive responsibility from Hazard.

But things suddenly changed after an epic 4-3 defeat of Sunderland at the Stadium of High. Hazard was labelled as "special" by the Special One himself as the Belgian set up Frank Lampard for the opening goal, and then netted twice in an enthralling encounter. From that point, Hazard was transformed from an emerging talent into one of the entire league's leading lights.

Equally creative as he is devastating, Hazard left more than just poor Pablo Zabaleta trailing in his wake as he single-handedly propelled the Blues into title contention after a disappointing midwinter. Hazard had emerged from an early-season lull and was now the principal provider of everything good about the Blues in both a defensive and an attacking sense.

Scoring goals - quality goals, important goals - is something that the Belgian has added to his game this season - with fourteen league strikes, only the aforementioned Toure (20) and Southampton's Jay Rodriguez (15) netted more often from midfield than Hazard in 2013/14. Added to that was a sense of responsibility instilled by Mourinho, and there is perhaps no better demonstration of his defensive aptitude than in the 1-0 away win over Manchester City when Hazard was as terrifying in an attacking sense as he was formidable as an auxiliary defender.

The Hazard that plays for Belgium is a slightly different prospect from the Hazard who starred so frequently for Chelsea. His defensive responsibilities are somewhat reduced. With any of Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel or Porto's Steven Defour operating behind him in the "Makelele role", Hazard is given something close to free rein; the shackles are removed, so to speak.

Though Hazard is not one to shy away from his defensive duties, he will prove to be even more of a handful with his national side this summer. Belgium are hotly fancied in Brazil, and there are numerous World Cup betting offers backing both Hazard and his country to go far in the competition. With this second Golden Generation available to them, and with Hazard at the helm, it is no surprise to see Marc Wilmots' side so feared and so heavily fancied.


Brazil's golden boy, is not, as you would expect, Neymar, but instead Chelsea's Oscar. The way it works is that Neymar gets the superstar billing whilst Oscar quietly goes about inspiring his side - who enter this home World Cup as arguably the favourites - to potential glory this summer. He, too, is (or at least was...) Mourinho's golden boy at Chelsea - to such an extent that José publicly announced Oscar was his number ten at the start of the season ahead of Juan Mata, leading to the latter's £37.1 million departure to Manchester United in January.

His form, at the start of the season, justified Mata's omission and his subsequent sale. However, following the Spaniard's departure, the cynic on me would say that, safe in the knowledge his position was secure, Oscar's performances dropped and his bright start to the season was curtailed. Chelsea had to look elsewhere for inspiration - Hazard, Schurrle and Willian eventually became Mourinho's preferred midfield triumvirate behind whichever striker was performing the least poorly out of Samuel Eto'o, Demba Ba and Fernando Torres.

Though he looked something like himself in the special comeback win over Paris St Germain at Stamford Bridge, Oscar's season ended on a limp note as he was sidelined by an aggravating hip injury which, if exacerbated, may have threatened his participation in the World Cup this summer.

The good news for Brazilians across the globe is Oscar - who said was saving himself for this summer's finals - in truth has always saved himself for when it comes to representing his nation. With the defensive shackles removed, Oscar is a different player altogether. A genuine goal threat and an effervescent figure of attacking guile and skill, Brazil's boy wonder will be one of the stars of the tournament and certainly one to look out for. He is a joy to watch and plays the game with a smile on his face.

He may have had a quiet end to the season with Chelsea - the highlight of which, other than two goals in a routine thrashing of Arsenal, was him showing off his package as a Calvin Klein underwear model - but expect fireworks from the little magician, who is set to light up this tournament in a burst of yellow and blue.

Frank Lampard

Is Frank Lampard the most criminally undervalued England player of his generation? Playing alongside the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and the media darling that is Wayne Rooney, a strong case can certainly be made. Lampard is beyond legend status at Chelsea - he is, without doubt, the Blues' greatest-ever player - and in 2005, he was officially the second-best player in world football.

The truth is that Lampard is a long, long way from his best. Whether you identify his best season as the first under José Mourinho in 2005, when he helped steer the Blues to a first title in 50 years; 2008/09 when he netted twenty from midfield, including the winner in an FA Cup final, all the while playing in an abstract position; or 2009/10 when he came close to breaking the 30-goal barrier, the Frank Lampard is 2014 is, sadly, just not quite the same player.

Age has caught up with Frank, and though he is capable of some very fine performances and is still able to pop up with the trademark breathtaking goal or two, his ability to dominate games has been made limited a new position and his comparatively reduced mobility. Lampard has never been a pacey player, but he has lost a yard or two of pace. It is little wonder the fleet-footed trio of Hazard, Oscar and Willian are preferred in an advanced position.

An area where Lampard trumps all the young pretenders at both club and national level is in terms of his experience. Even Gerrard, the England captain, can't boast of Lampard's impressive trophy haul of three Premier League titles, two League Cups, four FA Cups, two Community Shields, the Europa League, and of course, that big-eared trophy picked up in Munich two years ago. In that time he has achieved more than 100 England caps, becoming his country's joint-eighth top goalscorer of all-time, and the scorer of more penalties for England than any other player. Lampard and reliable have become synonymous terms in the world of football.

Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkely and Adam Lallana are all touted to be after Lampard's starting berth, but having been named his country's vice-captain in this year's finals, Lampard may well have been thrown an olive branch by manager Roy Hodgson after a season of being in and out of the Chelsea side. A regular until the arrival of Nemanja Matic, Lampard has been reserved predominantly for the "big" matches, and he not least played a staring role in a 1-0 win over Everton where he netted a 91st-minute winner.

Lampard's experience will prove a crucial factor should England manage to progress from their group of death, featuring Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica. More defensively responsible than any of the players who may replace him in the future, Lampard may well start alongside Gerrard in the midfield pivot for the Three Lions as Hodgson looks to somehow inspire his side to the knockout rounds. It will be hard, but in Lampard, England have a (vice) captain, leader and legend to inspire them to what could end up being a very positive summer of football.

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