(Reuters) - Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard can make his mark on a season that has so far been hampered by his slow return from injury in the blockbuster Champions League clash at Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, coach Antonio Conte said.
The Belgian fractured his ankle while training for his country in June and has only been able to make one start for Chelsea, in the 5-1 win over Nottingham Forest in the League Cup last week.
He has yet to score in his four substitute appearances in the Premier League and Europe but is primed to start against Diego Simeone’s side in the first Champions League game at Atletico’s new, 68,000-capacity Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
Hazard, who English media reports say is on the verge of agreeing an improved contract with the Premier League champions, has struggled to repeat his impressive domestic displays in the Champions League, scoring only five times in 25 starts, with his last European goal coming in March 2015.
Conte said that Hazard’s time to shine will come against their La Liga opponents, who have reached the Champions League final twice in the last four years.
“Last season Eden played a really important season, played very well and he was very important for us in winning the league,” the Italian told a news conference on Tuesday.
“This competition brings you to another level. I think he has all the possibilities to do this. He’s a really top player. Now he’s totally fit and in contention for tomorrow’s game. I think it’s the right moment.”
Chelsea have also underperformed in the Champions League since winning the trophy for the first time in 2012, failing to get past the last-16 in three of their last four appearances in the competition.
Their struggles have coincided with a general decline of English sides in Europe, in contrast to Spanish teams, who have won the Champions League four years in a row and comprised six of the last eight finalists.
English teams have made a flying start in this year’s competition, however, with four of the five representatives earning impressive wins in their opening games, including Chelsea hammering Qarabag 6-0.
Conte believes the tide may be about to turn, but stressed that progress will not come immediately.
“Spanish sides are dominating in Europe and it means they’re very, very strong. I think we need to try and change this dynamic and history,” he added.
“To win the Champions League you have to build season by season, improve your team to take experience in the competition and then try to be competitive. Everyone wants to do their best in this competition.”
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge