There was nothing ceremonial about Eden Hazard’s 100th cap when Belgium lined out against Cyprus at the GSP Stadium on the outskirts of Nicosia in their second game of Euro 2020 qualification on Sunday. There was work to be done for Roberto Martinez’s side.
Cyprus were matchday one winners against San Marino – racking up five unanswered goals – meaning the Red Devils are trailing in Group I at this early stage. Being ranked No. 1 in the word, however, means Belgium are expected to emerge top of this section convincingly. A tricky first challenge against a resilient Russia was overcome in trying circumstances.
The March international fixtures are fraught with peril for many managers of the leading nations. Hectic domestic schedules mean some players are reaching national team duty fatigued and some others are not reaching it at all.
Martinez would have been justifiably worried coming into the opening stages of qualification given the number of unavailable senior Belgium players. Kevin De Bruyne was chief among them as his frustrating, injury-ravaged season shows no sign of relenting. There was no Romelu Lukaku either, leaving the manager without two of his most important attackers.
Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel – a Martinez favourite – and Thomas Meunier were also ruled out. Consider the impact of the loss of Mousa Dembele and the international retirement of Marouane Fellaini and you can get a sense of the danger of the situation to be faced.
If ever Hazard was needed by his country then it was Thursday night at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels. It may well have been Hazard’s best-ever performance in a Belgium shirt on the occasion of his 99th cap.
He was involved in the opening goal for Youri Tielemans. He won and converted a penalty to put Belgium 2-1 up after a Thibaut Courtois horror how permitted Denis Cheryshev to equalise. And he was on hand with a tidy left-footed finish to put the game out of reach of the Russians late on.
Any fears Martinez might have had about failing to take three points from – given the circumstances – the group’s most difficult challenge duly dissipated.
That’s the Hazard effect. The Belgium system is not dependent on any one individual but it is optimised for the Chelsea playmaker. With little brother Thorgan in tandem on the left side, the eldest Hazard had both the support and freedom he needed.
He was to be found in all that Belgium created. His dribbles were magnetic. His delivery, in the main, supreme. It was everything a manager would want from a captain in such a potentially perilous game.
Hazard was the man to stand up, perform and tell those around him “I’ve got this”. It’s the kind of display Belgium has come to expect from the 28-year-old since being made permanent captain by Martinez.
He is a player who thrives on that responsibility; a man who shouldered that burden gladly at the World Cup, where Belgium had their best-ever finish. And now, with 100 caps, Hazard is an example for those coming up after him. Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker are two such players, entrusted to start the high-profile game against the Russians and led ably through it by their captain.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Hazard does for Belgium what Lionel Messi does for Barcelona. He wears the armband, co-ordinates the attacks, sees and does things that no one else can, inspires the team-mates around him due to his attitude and ability, and strikes fear in the opposition.
And how tantalising a prospect it is to imagine the two of them going up against each other at club level next season. The last time they met – in last season’s Champions League – was a washout from a Chelsea perspective.
They have been too inconsistent on the domestic and European fronts in the last couple of seasons for Hazard to truly stand out. He is at the peak of his powers and deserves his shot at the top.
It’s high time for Hazard to leave Chelsea behind and hit the heights at Santiago Bernabeu. His playing idol was Zinedine Zidane. He’s never hidden the fact that one day he’d love to play there.
Given Madrid’s profile, it might be the only way he’ll get the recognition needed for the Ballon d’Or that he one day might compete for.
Time is of the essence; it’s amazing to think that it’s eight years since Georges Leekens – the former Belgium manager – substituted an inconsistent Hazard after an hour of a Euro 2012 qualification game against Turkey.
The midfielder stormed down the tunnel, left the stadium and – with the game still ongoing – was pictured at a burger joint with his family. It led to a fierce debate in Belgium about Hazard’s attitude and, indeed, his output.
He had long been marked out for greatness since his time at Lille but only blew hot and cold for the national side. However, Hazard has grown up and, through the years, proven that those early comparisons to Belgian legend Enzo Scifo were well worth making.
And here we are with Hazard jhaving become a centurion; in a serious game with the need for a result. When some players reach that landmark they are ready to be put out to pasture. But not Hazard. There is more to come and – frighteningly – he might just be getting started.