Lukaku & De Bruyne boost Belgium but will require Hazard genius against Argentina

The pair produced their best form in the dramatic win over the United States; their Red Devils team-mate will have to do likewise if Marc Wilmots' men 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 the United States. However, while the coach might not be upset with his star player’s performances in Brazil, he is surely frustrated? Indeed, maybe not angry, just disappointed.

Big things were expected of the Belgians in this World Cup, not least because in Hazard they boast 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 in Belgium's first two games, 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, damn 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 he showed only flashes of what he can do and ultimately left the field to a chorus of boos from a distinctly unimpressed crowd at Arena Fonte Nova.

It could have been very different. Hazard had earlier had the chance to be Belgium’s hero two minutes before the end of normal time but he 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. It was also De Bruyne who slipped Lukaku through for what proved the game's decisve goal. In total, the 23-year-old created 10 chances - the most by any player at a World Cup since 1982. On the evidence of events at Arena Fonte Nova, one could have been forgiven for thinking Chelsea had got rid of the wrong player.

It also seemed 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. Lukaku 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.

Lukaku's return to form is both timely and welcome as far as Belgium are concerned. They could now do with Hazard following his club-mate’s lead. He’ll certainly have to in Brasilia this weekend.

Given what we’ve seen thus far, and in particular during the closing 15 minutes of a fortuitous win over an incredibly resilient United States side, the Red Devils' hopes of progressing to the last four could hinge on Hazard, because while Argentina's talismanic No.10 is proving decisive in each and every game he plays in Brazil, Belgium's continues to disappoint.

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