Thibaut Courtois says Chelsea and Belgium teammate Eden Hazard is "the same player as last year" despite the winger's slump in form and persistent injury problems.
Hazard was voted PFA Player of the Year last season after inspiring Chelsea to a first Premier League title in five years with 14 goals and nine assists, but he has registered just two goals and seven assists in 38 appearances this campaign as the Blues have endured their worst campaign of the Roman Abramovich era.
A lingering hip injury has also troubled the 25-year-old since interim manager Guus Hiddink's arrival in December, but teammate Courtois told Belgian TV channel RTBF: "Against PSG and in other matches before that, Eden was really strong and did the dribbles that I saw him do last year.
"But in those weeks they didn't lead to a goal or an assist, so they didn't show them afterwards and it's easy to criticise him."
Hazard was one of the Chelsea players singled out for criticism by some supporters after Jose Mourinho's dismissal in December, and sympathy from others has been limited after an interview with Le Parisien published last month in which the player appeared to court interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid.
Further anger was stirred by Hazard's decision to swap shirts with Angel Di Maria at half-time of Chelsea's Champions League round-of-16 second-leg defeat to PSG at Stamford Bridge earlier this month, though Courtois is adamant that the incident was not his teammate's fault.
"People were annoyed with him because he swapped shirts too but it was Di Maria who asked him," the Belgium No. 1 said. "I see Eden every day in training and he's the same player as last year."
Courtois also suggested Mourinho's dismissal was inevitable and blamed preseason preparation's for the club's dismal season.
"Without doubt we needed a change at that moment," the goalkeeper added. "Our preseason was very short. We started on July 16 and straightaway we had a tour in the United States.
"Maybe physically we weren't in good shape. We started the serious action with a defeat against Arsenal in the Community Shield and then there was a negative spiral that set off."
The former Atletico Madrid loanee also said his own form had not been up to the standards he would like.
"We've had a lot of draws recently and we've conceded a lot of goals too easily," he said.
"I could have been better on some of the goals we conceded. As soon as you make a mistake, you're killed by the press."