One could be forgiven for judging Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Southampton's Sofiane Boufal to be very similar players. Both are very skilful, relying on their quick feet and delightful trickery rather than raw athletic ability. Both play just behind the main striker. Both have shown that they are capable of moments of jaw-dropping brilliance.
However, the man that perhaps knows the pair the best thinks otherwise. Saints manager Claude Puel, who brought Boufal to the South-Coast last summer and nurtured a young Hazard into the first-team when he was in charge at Lille, sees more differences than similarities.
After Boufal introduced himself to the Southampton faithful in spectacular fashion last Wednesday when his stunning strike was the difference as Southampton beat Sunderland in the EFL Cup, comparisons between him and the brilliant Belgian were made hastily. However, Puel has maintained that the 23-year-old is not in the same bracket as Hazard yet, both physically and technically.
Puel on Hazard
In Eden Hazard, Claude Puel can claim to be responsible for the development of one of the world's finest talents. In 2007 Hazard, at the tender age of 16, was called up to Lille's senior squad by then manager Claude Puel. It was the beginning of a fantastic journey for the short, speedy left-winger, who would become the key focus of a title-winning Chelsea side just 8 short years later.
When reminiscing of his first glimpses of the future superstar, Puel states that he saw a "fantastic player" who still has the "same qualities" today.
Speaking about Hazard's technical game, Puel was once again full of praise, describing his graduate as a "a strong little man", who can "keep resistance against all the defenders", before concluding that he "he takes the football like a pleasure".
If Hazard is the finished article then, according to Puel, Boufal is still very much a work in progress. The Moroccan magician also played in the colours of Lille, before Puel brought him to St Mary's for a club-record fee of £16million at the back end of last summer's transfer window. After a successful spell in France, Boufal was expected to be a Hazard-like player who could spearhead Southampton's attack under their new French manager.
Yet despite the price tag and the expectation, Puel believes that any comparison between Hazard and Boufal is premature. Not only are they "different players with different qualities", their "age difference and their body" demonstrate their lack of similarity. Hazard is "Strong in his legs", while Boufal is "light" and without the "strong body" of the 25-year-old.
As well as their physical differences, the Southampton manager also highlighted how Boufal is not the same quality of player to Hazard, perhaps to the disappointment of Saints fans. Puel stated that Chelsea's number 10 has the superior footballing brain currently, as he knows "when to take the ball and dribble, score or give a good assist". On the other hand, Boufal must "learn" this "aspect of the play".
Evidently, Puel believes that Boufal is not yet the footballer that Hazard is for multiple reasons. As if by magic, an example of this was emphatically shown last Sunday, as a Hazard-inspired Chelsea comfortably defeated Southampton at St Mary's.
The Blues' main man seemed to be everywhere, scoring a well-taken goal after just six minutes, and terrorising the Southampton defence all afternoon with his quick feet, electrifying pace and near-immaculate decision-making.
Boufal in contrast, came on as a substitute in the second half, and made no real impact as he struggled to cope with the physical side of the game. By the final whistle, Puel's comments about the two players he knows well had been definitively proved right.
Nevertheless, despite this reality-check for Boufal and the Southampton fans, they still have a player with huge potential on their hands. He may not be the finished article by any means but, after Hazards' scintillating show, who better is there to develop this player than Claude Puel?