Hazard a leading contender to be the Cup's biggest star

Belgium's Eden Hazard, who was instrumental in his country's 2-1 victory against Brazil, at a training session in Rostov-on-Don.
Belgium's Eden Hazard, who was instrumental in his country's 2-1 victory against Brazil, at a training session in Rostov-on-Don.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ST PETERSBURG • When Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were sent packing from the World Cup a week ago, the stage was set for Brazil's Neymar to take over the role of the tournament's true star.

But it is now Belgium's Eden Hazard who is making the strongest bid for that crown.

Both were on the same pitch last Friday, when Belgium beat Brazil 2-1, but the difference between their contributions was strikingly evident.

Many will blame Brazil's exit on the way their attacking moves were constantly funnelled towards their No. 10 in the hope that the forward would deliver the world-class individual skill he is capable of, but which he rarely delivered throughout the tournament in Russia.

With all the talent at Brazil coach Tite's disposal, the vortex of Neymar ended up weakening their collective effort, whereas Hazard has had the exact opposite effect on Belgium.

The Chelsea forward showcased his individual skills numerous times against Brazil, especially with a mesmerising dribble from wide in the second half, and the statistics showed that all 10 of his dribbles in the game ended with his team still in possession.

But his contribution went well beyond the eye-catching moments of skill.

Hazard dictated the tempo of the game, pressing the accelerator for counter-attacks that ripped open Brazil's defence but also, especially in the second half, slowing down play and maintaining possession.

That aspect of game management, of understanding the right moment to burst forward and equally the opportune time to calm things down, is what makes Hazard more than just a tricky winger or support striker - and that could prove crucial against France today.

"I told him recently that he must thank God for the talent he has been given. He answered, 'Maybe I should thank him a little'," recalled former Chelsea team-mate Demba Ba of Hazard.

Belgium full-back Thomas Meunier, however, felt that it was nothing divine but that Hazard was simply talented.

"He's not a natural leader like (Vincent) Kompany, but rather a leader who shows through example on the field," he added.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2018, with the headline 'Hazard a leading contender to be the Cup's biggest star'. Print Edition | Subscribe