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Hazard warning: Chelsea star flourishing in new free role

It was around two years ago that Eden Hazard was dropped from the Chelsea team, with the defensive work demanded by then-manager Jose Mourinho not coming naturally to a flair winger. Hazard was the footballer of the year in England at the time and was enduring a mystifying slump in form, clearly uncomfortable at being placed in such a tactical straitjacket.

There's no danger of that under Antonio Conte. One of the big benefits of switching last season to a 3-4-3 formation, which sparked Chelsea's relentless march to the Premier League title, was the freedom it gave to Hazard. The need to track back — "tactical discipline," as Mourinho called it — was largely a thing of the past for the Belgium international, who could focus his energy on hurting the opposition with his skill and awareness.

Conte has gone one step further this season. In his latest tactical shift, the Italian coach has recently turned to a 3-5-1-1 formation, handing Hazard license to roam behind striker Alvaro Morata as a drifting No. 10. Hazard even played as a lone striker against Qarabag in the Champions League on Wednesday, while Morata was rested.

It is bringing the best out of Hazard, now aged 26 and a more mature player. Liverpool had better watch out on Saturday, when Chelsea visits Anfield for the standout game in the 13th round of the Premier League.

Since returning from a broken ankle that caused him to miss the early part of the season, Hazard has six goals in his last seven games, including two against West Bromwich Albion last weekend. It was a breathtaking performance that West Brom manager Tony Pulis, fired two days later, could have done without.

Hazard is playing with a smile on his face again and is likely back on the radar of the big Spanish clubs who have been linked with him for so long. During the recent international break, Hazard, while stressing his happiness at Chelsea, said it would be a "dream" to play under Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, who is openly an admirer of the Belgian.

Barcelona, meanwhile, is likely to again target a move for Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho over the next transfer windows after missing out on signing him during the offseason. If they fail again, Hazard would not be the worst fall-back option.

For the moment, Hazard's remit is to help keep Chelsea on the tail of Manchester City, which leads the league by eight points over Manchester United. Chelsea is a point further back in third after four straight league victories, amid a run of six wins in its last seven matches in all competitions.

The switch to a 3-5-1-1 has Cesc Fabregas regaining his place in a bulked-up midfield alongside fit-again N'Golo Kante and summer signing Tiemoue Bakayoko. With these three players behind Hazard, who is developing an increasingly impressive understanding with Morata, Conte seems to have landed on another reliable formation.

Liverpool's defenders, back under the microscope after the team's collapse from 3-0 up to draw 3-3 with Sevilla in midweek, could have their hands full again on Saturday. Here's what else to watch out for this weekend:

IBRAHIMOVIC TO START?

After two substitute appearances following his return from seven months out injured, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is pushing for a start for Manchester United against Brighton on Saturday.

Romelu Lukaku was signed during the offseason as United's first-choice striker but Ibrahimovic's quicker-than expected recovery from a knee injury means the two are fighting for the lone striker berth.

Or perhaps United manager Jose Mourinho could pair them up front, with Ibrahimovic just behind in the No. 10 role.

When he entered as a second-half substitute against Newcastle last weekend, the Swedish striker's first actions were to tell Lukaku to move out to the right wing. Ibrahimovic might still be the king of Old Trafford.

UNSTOPPABLE CITY

Manchester City goes looking for its 18th straight win in all competitions — a run that includes a penalty-shootout triumph in the League Cup — when the unbeaten leader travels to Huddersfield on Saturday.

Huddersfield beat Man United 2-1 last month for its biggest victory since returning to England's top division after a 45-year absence. It would be some double to topple City, too.

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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