Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic has leapt to the defence of Eden Hazard.
The Belgian has suffered a dramatic dip in form this season and was booed by supporters after limping off late on in Wednesday night’s Champions League defeat to Paris Saint-Germain.
Fans were annoyed by the sight of the playmaker swapping shirts with Angel di Maria at half-time of such a crucial clash, while his commitment to the club has been questioned given his recent admission that he would find it hard to turn down a move to PSG.
But Hazard has the support of his Chelsea teammates, with Ivanovic claiming the 25-year-old played through the pain against the French champions and hailing his performance as one of the best he has given this season.
“It’s not an excuse, but people have to think about the fact he started the game injured,” Ivanovic said in the Evening Standard.
“Did that show how committed he is? Yes. Of course when you lose a game the fans are not happy and they have to be like that.
“But in my opinion it was one of his best performances so far. He was very strong and quick. He wanted to score and had a couple of actions where he looked like last season.”
Next season appears almost certain to be Chelsea’s first without Champions League football under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, who took over in 2003. Their most recent season without top-level European competition was in 2002-03, when they played in the UEFA Cup.
Chelsea are well adrift of qualifying through the Premier League – the Blues are 10th, 10 points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, with nine games remaining – 10 months after winning the title.
And the competitive nature of the Premier League means there are no guarantees of a swift return to Europe’s top table.
Ivanovic said: “I will really miss playing in the Champions League a lot. All of the players dream to play in the Champions League – we live for the competition and the games. It’s going to be very disappointing to not be in it next season.
“There are great teams and you have to concentrate all of the season to be in the top four. It’s very difficult to be at that level all season.
“But this team has the character to grow and finish in the top four next season. We can fight for the title. We can come back stronger for the Champions League.”
The immediate focus is Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Everton.
Gary Cahill said on chelseafc.com: “We need to refocus as we have one big chance to do something this season and the first hurdle is at the weekend.”
Like Hazard, Diego Costa departed injured and is a doubt for the trip to Goodison Park.
Costa had been a nuisance to PSG in the hour he was on the field and cancelled out Adrien Rabiot’s opener before Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the visitors’ second to end the tie.
Ibrahimovic hopes the Ligue 1 leaders can match their performances against Chelsea in their fourth successive season in the last eight. They were knocked out by Barcelona in 2013 and 2015, either side of a defeat to Chelsea.
“In France we are doing the maximum we can do – we can’t do any better than that – but the Champions League is the next step for us,” Ibrahimovic said on uefa.com.
“We did great, but can we repeat the good things we did against Chelsea? If we can then things are looking good.”