Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri called Eden Hazard one of the top two or three players in Europe on Wednesday, and said he wants to meet the Belgium forward face-to-face to discuss his future.
Chelsea, the 2017 Premier League champion, later announced that Gianfranco Zola has returned to the club as an assistant to Sarri. Former Italy international Zola made more than 300 appearances and scored 80 goals for the Blues between 1996 and 2003.
Sarri and Zola face the immediate task of keeping Hazard at Stamford Bridge.
Hazard said at the World Cup in Russia that “it might be time to discover something different” after spending the last six years with Chelsea, which failed to qualify for this season’s Champions League. He has been linked with a move to European champion Real Madrid, which recently sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus.
Hazard is taking time off after the World Cup along with Belgium teammate Thibaut Courtois, whose future is also the matter of some debate.
Sarri said he doesn’t just want to phone the players who have yet to return to preseason training because a “telephone call without looking in their eyes will not give any certainty. I want to meet them face-to-face and understand what’s the best thing to do for everyone.”
“(Hazard is) one of the top two or three European players,” Sarri said in his first news conference as Chelsea coach since joining from Napoli, adding that he hopes “to improve Hazard but that will be difficult.”
Sarri also said he will play in a “slightly different way” to predecessor Antonio Conte, who won the Premier League in his first season and FA Cup in his second after changing to a three-man defense.
Chelsea has already signed holding midfielder Jorginho from Napoli this offseason. Sarri wants more quality in the midfield area to fit his preferred approach, while adding that he could also adapt to the players he currently has in the squad.
Zola’s return is likely to go down well with fans, with Chelsea’s website saying “Welcome home Gianfranco.” The 52-year-old Italian spent seven years at the club as a player, helping them win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, Super Cup, two FA Cups and the League Cup.
“I would love us to start well and we are all very excited to start this new adventure,” said Zola, who has had management experience in England with West Ham, Watford and Birmingham.