MOGI DAS CRUZES, Brazil (AP) — Belgium coach Marc Wilmots was sure about two things coming into the World Cup: A single action can turn a match, and Eden Hazard can produce that single decisive action.
The Belgian playmaker goes into the second-round game against the United States on Tuesday ready to spring that unstoppable move after more than a week of rest and almost a lifetime of watching Brazilian football videos.
“All the Brazilians inspired me,” Hazard said, rattling off the names of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. “When I was little and growing up, I watched a lot of videos.”
Little surprise he was all eyes Saturday watching Neymar and Brazil escape into the quarterfinals, beating Chile in a penalty shootout.
Already among the most talented players on the ball in Europe, more was expected of the 23-year-old Hazard at the World Cup. But so far he has received mixed reviews.
Yes, he has been decisive in the two matches he started, twice providing the assist that qualified Belgium with a game to spare. And when he came on with a few minutes to play in the 1-0 win over South Korea, he also proved how effective he can be with his feints and fakes, fabulous dribbles and fearsome shots.
But he has also failed to the lift pressure on a harried defense for much of his games.
After Hazard stood out as a kid on the fields south of Brussels, he was quickly picked up when he was only 14 by the closest French club, Lille, just across the border. At 16, he made his debut in the French league, among the half dozen toughest in Europe — and by extension the world.
The position of playmaker is not one to be shy at. It takes personality and verve on top of the best skills to impose yourself on a team, and to do so as a teenager was exceptional. The intense stare in his eyes showed a burning ambition from an early age.
He added two young player of the year awards to two all-around player of the year titles in the French league before even France became too small for him. Chelsea beckoned.
Since arriving in London, he has won over hard-to-please Jose Mourinho. As the World Cup started some of the greatest clubs were vying for his services but, as things stand, Hazard looks likely to continue in blue next season.
Life in red, as in the colors of the national team, has not been that easy. Headstrong and opinionated, he could not take being substituted in a game against Turkey four years ago, and with the match still going on, he left the stadium to go eat a hamburger at a concession stand. It did not go down well.
That was before Wilmots made him a cornerstone of the World Cup campaign.
Much like Aime Jacquet realized France could not win the 1998 World Cup without Zinedine Zidane, Wilmots realizes Belgium needs Hazard.
“A whole campaign can turn on one action, one incident,” Wilmots said.
And he wants Hazard to provide it, even if he appears to be struggling in the match.
Twice, it seemed that Hazard was having lackluster games when the opposition still had wind. But during the 2-1 victory over Algeria, it was a pinpoint pass to Dries Mertens that set the winger up for a shot that won the game. Against Russia, it was a move on the left into the penalty area and a perfect pass to Divock Origi which made the difference in a 1-0 game.
Against the Americans in Salvador, he is again expected to be teamed up with Kevin De Bruyne as the creative genius in a disciplined squad. It is expected to become a bruising physical battle throughout and often it is in such conditions that a late flash of brilliance can make the difference.
“If we get some space you will see that our creative players will be extremely dangerous,” De Bruyne said of himself and Hazard, with whom he has gone through Belgium’s youth ranks for almost a decade.
And Hazard is also dying to show more than a few late flashes.
“We will start playing better and increase our confidence,” Hazard said, “so we will start winning matches in style.”
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