Hazard Still Guilty Of Flattering To Deceive

Belgium continued their rather haphazard route through the competition with extra-time victory over USA, but Eden Hazard continues to be slightly uninspiring...

Last Updated: 02/07/14 at 08:48 Post Comment

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Such was the clamour over Belgium's 'golden generation' in the build-up to this tournament, it became difficult to make a subjective and unbiased estimation of exactly what we could, or should, expect from Marc Wilmots' side.

Due to the pant-wetting over the country's footballing rise (along with Borussia Dortmund they instigated the football 'hipster' renaissance), Belgium were backed into the position of fifth favourites despite having failed to qualify for five consecutive major tournaments following the 2002 World Cup. That seemed wildly optimistic.

In truth, Belgium have been largely uninspiring in Brazil. They incredibly managed to take nine points from their three group games despite leading for a total of just 24 minutes, less than half the figure of eliminated Russia. However, he who laughs, laughs longest, and Belgium will take their place in the quarter-finals alongside the other seven group winners. It is still four wins from four.

Having been given the kindest of group stage draws, there was hope that Belgium could ease their way into the tournament after an almost impeccable qualification record. In contrast to the above statistic, Belgium trailed for just 39 minutes (away in Croatia) throughout their entire qualification campaign to reach Brazil. Instead, there has been a distinct lethargy to all that the Belgians have attempted, particularly in an attacking sense, as Wilmots has rather been let down by some of his star players. Les Diables have relied on substitutes for three of their four goals, with defender Jan Vertonghen scoring the other.

It may sound harsh given their lack of experience on this particular stage but, given that Belgium's five midfielders have moved for a combined £118million in the last two years, and 13 of Belgium's squad played in the Champions League last season, should we have expected more? These are no plucky underdogs, and the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel and Romelu Lukaku have almost entirely flattered to deceive.

Against USA, the pattern from the group stage continued. Belgium have a squad with far greater ability than their opposition, and yet scraped through. Had Chris Wondolowski been more measured when presented with a last-minute chance in normal time (and the assistant referee less flag-happy), it could have been an evening with an entirely different ending. Even when Belgium looked to have gained some breathing space in extra-time, the cliché of the Hollywood sports film threatened to create a 2014 soccer version of Mighty Ducks. It has been a glorious fortnight for football in America, and they signed off from the tournament in memorable fashion.

At the epicentre of such Belgian disappointment sits Eden Hazard. In a tournament dominated by individuals acting as the catalyst for their team's success (Lionel Messi, Neymar, James Rodriguez), this was the opportunity for Hazard to shake off a season tinged with discontent at Stamford Bridge. It remains a chance yet to be seized.

Jose Mourinho criticised Hazard in May for his apparent lack of work rate, an evident bugbear of the Portuguese coach. "He's not the kind of player ready to sacrifice himself 100 per cent for the team and his mates. I'm not happy."

To make matters worse, those stinging words were mirrored before this tournament by his international manager. "He [Hazard] can do a lot for us, everyone knows that. Now I'm waiting to see it. I'm waiting for him to take hold of a match and impose himself, even if he's still young to be doing that."

Both men are right to increase their demands of Hazard. Although he has been excellent in patches since his £32m move from Lille, this is a player that is no longer merely a prospect in football terms. He will turn 24 in January, and must now start producing on a continued basis.

That may sound incredibly unforgiving, but Hazard in only judged by the standards that he has set himself. Speaking before the match on Tuesday, the player admitted wishing to emulate the best. "I have looked at what the other stars have done and try to take as much inspiration from them as possible.Have I been impressed by Lionel Messi, Neymar and James Rodriguez? Of course I have. I know you will see the best Eden."

It is not the first time Hazard has mentioned being considered as the best player in the world. "I realise that I can compete with Messi and Ronaldo in the near future, if I put in some more effort." There's that issue of work rate, again.

Against USA, Hazard was continuously criticised for his lack of assistance for Jan Vertonghen at full-back. American substitute DeAndre Yedlin was praised for his attacking endeavour, but his task was made easier by Hazard's constant refusal to track back.

Such a lack of determination will have infuriated his manager, especially as the one time he noticeably ran alongside, pressurised and eventually tackled his man, a chance for the sprightly Divock Origi was immediately created.

To be spoken of in the same breath as the best, Hazard now needs to be grabbing not just matches but entire competitions by the scruff of the neck. Ronaldo's 17 goals helped Real Madrid finally achieve La Decima, whilst Messi has been at the heart of all that Argentina have accomplished during this World Cup. The same cannot be said of Belgium's no. 10, and a quarter-final tie with Argentina provides the ideal opportunity for part redemption.

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