Chelsea must tie down its Belgians
It would be fair to say Chelsea's season has not gone to script. After Conte blew up his competition on the way to the 2016/17 Premier League title, he did the same to his squad. Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic are both gone. Their replacements haven't been nearly as effective. Now it is the Italian's turn to watch Guardiola claim the glory.
Recent interviews have seen the Chelsea tactician hint at being unhappy with the club's transfer policy. He can only identify needs. The club is unlikely to spend premium funds for his first choice at any position, finding the best bargain instead.
Chelsea's current problem isn't signing new players though. It's keeping the ones it has. Namely its two world-class Belgians. Both Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are entering the last 18 months of their contracts. Despite the club's seemingly relaxed mood, no progress has been made.
Courtois was the first youth player to thrive in Chelsea's loan policy. Signed for a mere £7 Million from Racing Genk, he was immediately loaned to Atletico Madrid. Stepping in for Old Trafford-bound David de Gea, Courtois was instantly and increasingly successful. He won the 2012 Europa League, 2013 Copa del Rey, 2014 Liga. Throw in two Ricardo Zamora Trophies for best Primera Division keeper in his three seasons at the Vicente Calderon.
When Jose Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge, he decided to recall the Belgian while also purchasing Diego Costa and Filipe Luis from Atleti. The rest, as they say, is history.
So good was Courtois, the Blues sold the legendary Petr Cech to rival Arsenal. The Belgian was quickly signed to a new contract with improved wages, keeping him at the club until 2019. It may seem like just yesterday when he was recalled but 2019 is looming. Courtois' willingness to stay is in question.
Recent history has demonstrated the disadvantages in letting players enter the final year of their contract without renewal. Juventus has perfectly manipulated the Bosman for years. Arsenal was forced to choose between selling Alexis Sanchez to one of its two strongest rivals, the Manchesters City and United. It remains to be seen what happens with Mesut Ozil.
If Courtois is one of the best at his position, and he is, Eden Hazard is similarly elite. After a dry spell, he proved as much by putting Brighton to the sword in six minutes on the weekend. Hazard has been instrumental in Chelsea's last two Premier League titles. Talks to re-sign the former Lille wunderkind have been shelved since the start of the season. This could play against Chelsea.
Rumors have it Courtois is open to staying at Chelsea but is seeking a weekly deal on a par with De Gea. Chelsea's stalling is incomprehensible considering they would be locking him up for another 5+ years.
Hazard, on the other hand, keeps joking that he will sign after Courtois does. Currently Chelsea's top earner at £200,000-a-week, the shorter Belgian probably would have accepted a £50K rise at season's start. Now United has signed Alexis Sanchez for a rumoured £350k/wk. If Courtois is comparable to United's keeper, shouldn't Hazard be aligned with Old Trafford's new star forward?
Chelsea has recently changed its business model, attempting to buy sensibly at the correct prices. Sense should also tell the club's hierarchy there are very few players out there are better than Hazard and Courtois. Paying to keep them may well prove a better piece of business than having to find replacements.
It is past time Chelsea tied up its two Belgians to longer deals.