It was not a new move by Gareth Barry. As he took an early slash at Eden Hazard’s ankles, the intention was clear.
Tony Pulis knew his side were up against it, with their backs against the wall and the firing squad ready and waiting. So the objective was to set the tone, summon the old street-fighter mentality and chop the pretentious down to size.
For a fleeting moment, Hazard might have been intimated. He stayed down a little while he felt the pain of the challenge. The home crowd turned on him, greeting the Belgian with a soundtrack of boos as he returned groggily to his feet.
It is not a new act. Diego Maradona was kicked to smithereens at the 1982 World Cup. The Italian Claudio Gentile fouled the Argentine 23 times and received only one caution. The Spanish received similar treatment from Holland in the 2010 World Cup final and the Brazilians and Colombians took turns to batter and bruise James Rodriguez and Neymar at the 2014 World Cup.
In comparison to those occasions, West Brom’s physicality here barely compared. Gareth Barry may have the most yellow cards in Premier League history with 120 cautions but he is not a nasty player. He’s streetwise and smart and knows that a booking is sometimes a sacrifice a player must make in the name of the collective.
Lesser players might cower – but not Hazard. Not anymore. He is by now used to this treatment. Jose Mourinho adopts a similar policy every time his Manchester United team play Chelsea.
Ander Herrera did not deter Hazard when the two sides met a fortnight ago and Barry was equally unsuccessful in this game. The great players respond by humiliating their opponents in football terms and that is exactly what Hazard did here.
First he produced retribution in the silkiest of manners. Allowing the ball to run across his body in midfield, he deceived Barry and drove at the West Brom defence. His powerful, low and swerving strike produced a fine save from goalkeeper Ben Foster and Alvaro Morata pounced instantly.
In trying to rile Hazard, West Brom only succeeded in raising his game. Chelsea were a goal up and from there, the game was up. West Brom have not overturned a lead to win a game since February and have done so only four times during Pulis’ reign.
Inside 17 minutes, therefore, West Brom appeared a beaten side and by 38 minutes, with Chelsea 3-0 ahead, a drama escalated into a full-blown crisis for Pulis.
Hazard continued to shine. Having retaliated through silk, he then showed his steel. When a ball ran loose in midfield, Hazard sensed an opportunity for retaliation, taking man over ball and accepting his own caution for a foul on Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak. Morata followed a similar path, chopping the ankles of Claudio Yacob less than a minute after the West Brom midfielder lunged at the striker.
Hazard’s football soon returned to centre stage, as he applied the finish touch to a sublime move that began with a threaded Cesc Fabregas pass and also included a stunning piece of backheeled improvisation from Morata.
In truth, Hazard’s performances this season have not always appeased Chelsea supporters. He struggled with injury early on in his campaign and before this game, he had scored only one Premier League goal all season.
There have been individual displays against Atletico Madrid and Manchester United that offered reminders of his qualities but this was his most complete performance of the season by some distance.
In the second-half, Hazard’s dancing feet teased and tormented the West Brom back line, carving further chances that might have condemned Pulis to an even more haunting afternoon. In the end, Hazard settled for his second and Chelsea’s fourth, as he dropped a shoulder and arrowed a placed effort into the corner.
On the final whistle, Conte made straight for his players and clenched the hand of his playmaker.
He will know better than anyone that this is the Hazard he must bring to the fore if Chelsea are to cling onto the coat-tails of Pep Guardiola’s table-toppers.