Belgium last played in a European Championship final in 1980, succumbing to a late strike from West-Germany’s Kopfball-Ungeheuer, Horst Hrubesch. But on the back of a majestic 4-0 win over Hungary in the round of 16, the golden generation may now be ready to deliver as they prepare to face Wales in the quarter-finals.
The Red Devils played with a startling sense of self-assurance against Hungary. After failing to catch fire in the group stage, they finally gelled, moving the ball at speed as they pressed for openings. Eden Hazard was the protagonist, exhibiting a virtuosity that had hitherto been missing in his appearances for the national team. His smart assist for Michy Batshuayi and blistering solo goal through the heart of the Hungarian defence capped off a brilliant result.
Hazard received universal acclaim for his performance in Belgium. “Otherworldly,” says Michel Sablon, Belgium’s technical director from 2001 to 2012 who masterminded the country’s footballing renaissance. “Hazard played as he if had turned 16 again. His passing and dribbling were mind-boggling; his vision for the Batshuayi goal – that’s the attribute of a top player. His form was reminiscent of playing for Belgium’s national youth teams.”
“His level was ‘Messi-anic’,” agrees Eddy Snelders, a former Belgian international and current analyst for the VRT, a national public service broadcaster.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Hazard completed 11 dribbles – the highest in a single Euros match since Brian Laudrup against Turkey at Euro ‘96 – and averaged a passing accuracy of 90%. In the second half he didn’t misplace a single pass – but mere statistics fail to illustrate the full picture of the winger’s beguiling display.
“Individual actions, constant motion, incessant infiltration, pace with the ball at his feet, penetration – it was all high-quality,” says Snelders. “Wales will have to be careful if Hazard shows the same determination. A one-off performance isn’t enough, he needs to confirm it against Wales.”
Snelders’ warning shot underlines the Hazard enigma. The Chelsea star normally picks his moments, providing flashes of his quality as he runs inside from the left wing. This season he cut a forlorn figure as Chelsea were beset with problems and disharmony. A remarkable 29 league games went by before he scored his first goal.
“After Chelsea won the title, they lacked a cutting edge. A crisis, dissatisfaction and scrutiny ensued. Hazard suffered,” says Snelders.
Sablon talks of a ‘conflict’ player, who needs to strike a balance between his individual talent and the needs of the team. “You know, Hazard needs punishment at times,” says Sablon. “Mourinho benched him and it worked. You don’t have to ask him to defend. He defended positionally under Mourinho and did so reasonably, but he matters mostly when in possession.”
It took Hazard an astonishing 2,192 Premier League minutes to register three assists last season, but at Euro 2016 he has provided three in just 351 minutes. His resurgence has been a timely boost for Belgium, but also somewhat unexpected. In 70 caps the 25-year-old has never truly excelled, to the extent that Snelders says: “We have never seen him play that well.” Hazard’s periphery has been one of Marc Wilmots’ biggest headaches.
“I don’t know,” admits Paul Van Himst, the 81-capped Belgium forward nicknamed ‘The White Pele’. “His talent is unquestionable, but at times it hasn’t always surfaced for Belgium.”
A panoply of reasons – from Wilmots’ contentious tactics to stinging criticism from international and local media – can perhaps explain why it has taken time for Hazard to flourish, but Sablon highlights a prerequisite for the winger to excel.
“Belgium only plays well when Kevin De Bruyne touches the ball often,” he says. “He is the best midfielder in the world, the Belgian Iniesta. If De Bruyne is not involved, Belgium play badly.”
Finally consecrated to the No.10 role, De Bruyne is Belgium’s metronome, regulating the play and creating momentum in attack. Against Hungary, however, Hazard surpassed the playmaker, propelling Belgium to their best performance of Euro 2016. So far it has been a mix of the bad, the mediocre and the outright brilliant – a recurring pattern from the 2014 World Cup.
In Brazil, Belgium dazzled in 120 minutes of topsy-turvy football against USA in the round of 16 before imploding against Argentina. “At the World Cup, the game against the USA was very open, but a few days later came the disenchantment against Argentina, because they didn’t allow Belgium to enjoy the space and exploit it,” says Snelders.
“Twice, Wales contained Belgium very well in the (Euro 2016) qualifiers and they will be a benchmark for Belgium’s progress. They concede few goals and you need to neutralise the creativity of Ramsey and Bale.” Sablon agrees: “Wales are a staunch team.”
Both are familiar with Belgium’s struggles against opposition who like to sit deep and remain in a compact block. Indeed, Wales could prove a trickier test than both Portugal or Poland, given Belgium’s previous failures in inflicting defeat by attrition. James Chester, Chris Gunter and Joe Allen – all in Hazard’s zone of play in the left channel – won’t offer him as much space as the Hungarians. He will need to come up with other solutions.
On Tuesday, Wilmots left Hazard out of training as a precaution, raising concerns in the Belgian camp. “At half-time [against Hungary] he already had a bit of bother to his thigh,” clarifies Tom Boudeweel, a sports reporter for the VRT. “He asked for a substitution at 2-0, but he decided to score another goal to earn a standing ovation. The naughty boy!”
Belgium will hope Hazard is back feeling fresh for Friday’s encounter. At his brilliant best, he is an artist with the ball, who can decide a game with a split-second of ingenuity. That may be what is required against Wales, who will defend like dragons against the Belgian wizard.