Euro 2016

Hazard must make the most of a landmark opportunity

Eden Hazard of Belgium during a training session  in Le Haillan, France, on June 30.
Eden Hazard of Belgium during a training session in Le Haillan, France, on June 30. PHOTO: REUTERS

LILLE • Today Eden Hazard will return to Lille for Belgium's quarter-final with Wales, an occasion that already has the air of a landmark moment in his career.

Most obviously Lille was the forward's home during his formative years.

It was here when he was a teenager that the French football federation took its turn at trying to persuade him to switch nationalities, a path that might have led him instead to the Stade de France and Iceland on Sunday.

Hazard never seriously considered it. Eight years and 69 caps on from his debut, he is Belgium's captain as they aim to reach a first major semi-final since Enzo Scifo's team were ambushed by Diego Maradona at the World Cup in Mexico 30 years ago.

For Hazard, it is a chance also to confirm his status alongside Gareth Bale in the race for the title of most compelling attacker at these Euros.

Hazard was sublime against Hungary last Sunday, all waspish runs and nifty passing angles. He has been a gathering influence all tournament, with three assists, one goal and a clear sense of a player finding himself again after a horrible domestic season with Chelsea.

"If he's feeling good, he's the best in the world," Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said after the Hungary game.

For Hazard the current pattern of play has at least clarified his role. Playing to the left of a 4-2-3-1, his role is simply to act as a cutting edge. With the resolute Jan Vertonghen behind him, Hazard can play facing forward.

Look at a map of his movements and he seems to have spent pretty much his entire 351 minutes on the pitch in France lurking in that inside-left channel, gliding inside as required, but tracking back less, concentrating only on the game in front of him.

Doing less has brought more. Hazard has dribbled more for Belgium, averaging 5.6 per 90 minutes, as opposed to 3.7 in the Premier League.

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots has compared his ability on the ball to Zinedine Zidane.

He actually presents a daunting prospect for Chris Coleman's defence, a constant menace in a team who can tee him up in those in-out half-turn positions where his extraordinary lateral spring can shed even the most determined posse of close markers.

How to get a hold of Hazard: It is, from both sides, a familiarly vexing question.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2016, with the headline 'Hazard must make the most of a landmark opportunity'. Print Edition | Subscribe