(CNN) — Welcome to the brutal realities of English football Eden Hazard.
Last summer, when arguably Europe’s most talented youngster was bought by Chelsea for $50m, the future looked so bright.
The newly crowned European champions made a blistering start to the English Premier League season, with the Belgian the focal point for Chelsea as they wowed critics and fans alike with some wonderfully inventive football.
Fast forward six months and the 22-year-old Hazard, who earns a reported $270,000 a week, was reduced to kicking a ball boy as Chelsea’s season took another turn for the worse.
It had been a frustrating night for Hazard.
For more than an hour he had tried but failed to get his team Chelsea out of a big hole as the London team desperately attempted to turn their season round in a cup match against Welsh side Swansea City.
But when a 17-year-old ball boy decided it was time to engage in some time wasting — he lay on the ball after it had gone out of play — the red mist descended over Hazard
The Belgian, whose modus operandi as a player is more sumptuous flicks and stepovers than sly skullduggery, aimed a kick at the youngster’s midriff.
Hazard, who had previously never been sent off in his professional career, was red carded by the referee, South Wales Police briefly contemplated pressing charges and Chelsea — not for the first time this season — were facing a public relations disaster of their own making.
“The boy put his whole body onto the ball and I was just trying to kick the ball and I think I kicked the ball and not the boy,” Hazard told the Chelsea website. “I apologise.
“The ball boy came in the changing room and we had a quick chat and I apologised and the boy apologised as well, and it is over. Sorry.”
Too late. The British media and social media website Twitter had already gone into overdrive.
“Football’s fresh shame,” was the verdict of the Daily Mail — a reference to English football’s continuing ability to attract the wrong headlines — while Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand tweeted: “I’m not the authorities but in my eyes it’s a red for all those asking. Us players do put refs in bad spots at times unfortunately!”
Immediately after the sending off, Hazard did find support — from Chelsea’s official Twitter account.
“Has football gone mad? Hazard is sent off for kicking the ball under a ball boy attempting to smother the ball rather than return it,” the club wrote on the account, which has over 1.79 million followers.
However, Chelsea quickly sent a more diplomatic tweet: “Apologies for earlier ballboy tweet. Hazard has now met with the ballboy and has said sorry.”
If initially Hazard was condemned for actions, he also won plenty of support, with the ball boy — reported by the British media to be the son of millionaire businessman who sits on the Swansea board — coming in for plenty of criticism.
“After reviewing last nights footage, I’ve come to the conclusion that the games gone,” tweeted Marseille midfielder Joey Barton, who has nearly two million Twitter followers.
“Ballboys aged 17, time wasting, then rollin round like ..they’ve been shot. Games gone. He was actually claiming to be best time waster in the world on twitter yesterday! What’s that all about? … Hazard only crime is he hasn’t kicked him hard enough.”
After the game Hazard apologized to the 17-year-old ball boy, who also said sorry to the Chelsea forward, though the Belgian is likely to be banned for a minimum of three games by the English Football Association for lashing out in the way he did.
The ball boy furore is the last thing under pressure Chelsea interim manager Rafa Benitez needs just now.
Hazard’s kick and red card is just the latest in series of setbacks following the club’s exit from the European Champions League and its dismal league form which has seen the London team fall 11 points off the lead, leaving Chelsea to focus on cup competitions — the FA Cup and the Europa League.
The Hazard incident overshadowed Swansea’s achievement of reaching a first major cup final in its 100-year history after their 2-0 aggregate win over Chelsea.
The Welsh club, which almost went out of the Football League 10 years ago, will now face fourth-tier Bradford City in the League Cup final at Wembley on February 24.
“Over two legs Chelsea had the ball more than us,” said Swansea manager Michael Laudrup.
“That is normal, that is Chelsea, but today they didn’t really have any good chances. We had some good chances.
“They had to score at least two but to be honest we deserved it. They didn’t score once in 180 minutes.
“What Bradford has done – there are no words. They have beaten three Premier League teams, it is marvelous. If I had a hat on I would take it off.”
In the Premier League, Arsenal thrashed West Ham 5-1 at Emirates Stadium.
Olivier Giroud scored twice, while Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott were also on target for the Gunners.
Arsene Wenger’s men are now four points off fourth place which holds the coveted prize of Champions League football.
In Spain, Real Madrid booked its place in the last four of the Copa del Rey, despite being reduced to nine men during the 1-1 draw at Valencia.
Leading 2-0 from the first leg, Real opened the scoring a minute before the break through Karim Benzema.
Alberto Costa’s 52nd minute strike brought the home side level before Fabio Coentrao and Angel Di Maria were sent off.
Jose Mourinho’s side will play Malaga or league leader Barcelona in the next round.
In the night’s other tie, Sevilla cruised past nine-man Real Zaragoza 4-0 thanks to two goals from Alvaro Negredo.
Zaragoza lost defender Jose Fernandez to a straight red card after 26 minutes before Fran Gonzalez followed him down the tunnel 40 minutes later.
Spain striker Negredo fired his side ahead after 36 minutes before Ivan Rakitic doubled Sevilla’s advantage.
Negredo netted his second from the spot before Manu del Moral completed the rout to set up a last-four clash with either Atletico Madrid or fierce rival Real Betis.
In Italy, AS Roma claimed a 2-1 win over Inter Milan in the first leg of its Coppa Italia semifinal.
Alessandro Florenzi headed home Ivan Peris’ cross on 13 minutes with Mattia Destro adding a second.
Inter pulled goal back just before the break when Rodrido Palacio latched on to Esteban Cambiasso’s free-kick and fired into the net.
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