Eden Hazard has put an awful Chelsea season behind him to shine at Euro 2016 but there is a sense the world’s most promising 25-year-old veteran can do more.
On Friday 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 Hazard’s home during his formative years. It was here as 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 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.
There is a theory Belgium suffer because so many of their players are used to working at club level with very detailed, high-intensity, tactical micro-managers. Whereas Wilmots simply isn’t that guy. 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 forwards. Looks like Hazard has 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. In four games he has had half as many shots outside the box as he managed in the entire league season just past. He continues to be fouled with bruising regularity, usually a sign of his best work.
Playing against Hungary may have helped, not least a Hungary who had just lost their best defensive midfielder. But Hazard was also Belgium’s best player in the defeat by Italy, always seeking the ball, always wanting to drive his team forward. The partnership with Kevin De Bruyne – the Belgo Lampard-Gerrard conundrum du jour – has also worked a little better. Hazard has played close to his more direct creative partner, joining those lightning De Bruyne breaks, as he did for the wonderful counterattack goal against Hungary.