Lukaku inspires Belgium but Hazard genius required against Argentina

The striker rediscovered his best form in the dramatic win over the United States; his Chelsea team-mate will have to do likewise if the Red Devils are to reach the last four
By Mark Doyle in Salvador

"I'm never able to get cross with Eden because he's such a nice guy," Marc Wilmots admitted on the eve of Belgium’s World Cup last-16 clash with United States. However, while the coach might not be angry with his star player’s performances in Brazil, he has surely been disappointed.

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Big things were expected of the Belgians in this World Cup, not least because in Hazard they boasted one of the most exciting young talents on the planet. At 23, and after a stellar season which saw him crowned the Premier League's Young Player of the Year, he seemed perfectly primed to display his world-class capabilities on the game's grandest stage.

However, he has thus far failed to deliver. True, Hazard played his part in the game-winning goals against Algeria and Russia. Furthermore, Fifa's stats department revealed that only Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez and Angel Di Maria completed more dribbles during the group stage.

But there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Messi and Alexis have been two of the stars of the tournament, while Di Maria belatedly made his presence felt in Argentina's dramatic last-16 win over Switzerland.

We were expecting Hazard to announce his arrival as a major player in Salvador later in the day. However, the 'real Eden Hazard' never turned up. He was involved in the break that led to Belgium’s second goal but showed only flashes of what he can do.

It could have been very different. He had earlier had the chance to be Belgium’s hero two minutes before the end of normal time but Hazard fluffed his lines, firing into the side-netting after being put in on goal by Kevin De Bruyne.

In a desperate bid to increase Hazard’s influence on the proceedings, Wilmots swapped the winger with De Bruyne, who had been playing in behind Divock Origi. Yet it was the Wolfsburg man who continued to exert the greater influence over the proceedings. Indeed, it was De Bruyne who finally broke the deadlock in Salvador, showing remarkable composure in getting the ball out of his feet after pouncing on a block inside the American area before firing low past the previously unbeatable Tim Howard.

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It was also De Bruyne who slipped Lukaku through for what proved the game-winning goal. Indeed, on the evidence of events at Arena Fonte Nova, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Chelsea had got rid of the wrong player.

It also seems strange that Lukaku’s future at Stamford Bridge remains in doubt. The forward's introduction turned this incredibly open game decisively in Belgium's favour. He was rightly lambasted for two dire performances in the group stages, against Algeria and Russia, and promptly dropped for the game against South Korea.

He started on the bench here, too, but made a sensational impact upon entering the game for extra time, creating the first goal and scoring the second. His return to form is a most welcome one for Belgium. They could now do with Hazard following his club-mate’s lead. He will have to.

On the evidence of what we have seen thus far, and in the closing 15 minutes of Belgium’s fortuitous win over an incredibly resilient United States side, Belgium will have little hope of beating Argentina unless their No.10 rediscovers his very best form.

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