Jose Mourinho has told Eden Hazard he could be just as good as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and says he has been amazed by the Chelsea player's dramatic improvement this season.
Hazard this week revealed his ambition to match the standards set by Messi and Ronaldo, claiming that he could achieve his goal with "some more effort". That would have been music to the ears of a manager renowned for convincing previously work-shy players to run through brick walls, Hazard being merely the latest example.
And this latest project is well ahead of schedule, according to Mourinho, who less than three months ago dropped Hazard from his squad for missing training after losing his -passport on an unauthorised -overseas trip.
So profound has been Hazard's change of attitude on and off the field since then that Mourinho said on Tuesday he now believed the Belgian had Messi and Ronaldo in his sights. He said: "Now, I say yes. Now, I say yes, because his evolution is great."
Comparing his improvement of Hazard to that he engineered in Joe Cole almost a decade ago, Mourinho added: "Eden was much easier than I thought. If it was easier than I thought, it's his responsibility, not mine. What I did was normal. The way he reacted was not normal. It was fantastic."
Hazard was shortlisted along with Messi and eventual winner Ronaldo for this month's World Player of the Year award, the Ballon d'Or, receiving just one second-place and five third-place votes from 541 eligible voters.
Rather than sulk, as Ronaldo did upon losing out to Messi in the four previous years, Hazard posted a self-deprecatory picture of himself clutching a 'Ballon de bois' (wood) signed by all his team-mates.
Mourinho, who managed Ronaldo at Real Madrid for three of the years in which he was overlooked in favour of Messi, said: "If he [Hazard] wants the Ballon d'Or, he must build the entourage politically for that.
"It's a different story if he wants to be a great, great player and arrive where Cristiano and Messi arrive. He has the space to go - he's 23, and Cristiano is 28 or 29, Messi 26 or 27. Still young players, but four or five years older than Eden. So he has space for evolution. I think there's a great ambition for him."
Hazard is Chelsea's top scorer this season with 11 goals from 30 games, well short of Messi and Ronaldo's ratios, and Mourinho admitted the winger was not the kind of player who could win the Golden Boot.
One who could is Wayne Rooney, who is poised to end speculation linking him with Chelsea by signing a new pounds 15?million-a-year contract with Manchester United.
A second salary increase in just over three years would see Rooney's strategy of threatening to quit Old Trafford pay off again.
Manchester City were the stalking horses on the previous occasion and asked if Chelsea had been treated like pawns this time around, Mourinho said: "I don't care. I'm happy for him if he gets a fantastic deal."