Hazard letting his football do talking
In a post-Ronaldo world, Belgian attacker may be just the non-celebrity that Real Madrid need
There was a moment late in Belgium's win over Brazil on Friday when Eden Hazard led a break. He charged into the opposition half, turned back inside and, as runners went by him, taking defenders with them, space opened up for a pass out to the left to substitute Youri Tielemans. There was an overlap, a chance of a third goal that would have finished the game. Hazard saw it. He tried to play it. But his legs, for once, did not obey. The ball set off in the right direction but with nothing like enough pace; Marcelo intercepted. Hazard had essentially been too exhausted to pass a ball 40 yards. Like the rest of the team, he was spent.
If Brazil had found a late equaliser, there could only have been one winner in extra time. Belgium had given everything, including Hazard, who does not necessarily have a reputation for industry. That, and his slightly diffident personality, lay at the heart of his difficult relationship with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. But here he ran until he could run no more.
Hazard has said that his role model was always Ronaldinho: he wanted to do his tricks and play with a smile on his face. He watched the Brazilian and copied his moves. He works much harder than Ronaldinho ever did, of course, and often wears a frown of concentration rather than the broad grin of his idol, but still, the original lurks beneath the surface; he jokingly refers to Chelsea's training ground as "Cobham cabana". And against Brazil, Hazard was exceptional, as all of Belgium's front three were.
His job, in a sense, was simple. This was not the inside-forward role he has been occupying for Belgium and that he has played for Chelsea over the past two seasons. In Kazan he started wide in a 4-3-3 but with a brief to cut infield into the spaces left when Kevin De Bruyne dropped deep from his false 9 position. Hazard was up against the one potential weak link in the Brazil side, the third-choice right-back Fagner. Mexico's Carlos Vela had dominated him early on in the last-16 clash in Samara; Hazard treated him like a slightly cumbersome training cone. He succeeded with all of his first five dribbles.
After the match, Brazil coach Tite retracted his earlier lament to God about all the injuries his side have suffered, but said this would have been a different game had Dani Alves not been ruled out before the tournament. It might have been a different game even if Danilo had been fit.
Fagner was exposed and unable to cope. Brazil's switch to 4-4-2 at half-time meant Gabriel Jesus offered a measure of cover, but by then Belgium led 2-0. As Romelu Lukaku bullocked down one flank, Hazard sliced away on the other side: two different threats, both released by Roberto Martinez's brave tactical shift, both devastatingly effective.
It was a performance that could have long-term consequences. The situation at Chelsea is farcical. Antonio Conte may be sacked this week, or he may still turn up for work, the world's most implausible George Costanza, to take training when the first wave of players return for pre-season on Monday.
There has been talk for years about Real Madrid possibly making a move for Hazard, and it has grown louder of late, while Hazard notably did not play down talk of a transfer after the FA Cup final in May.
Although it is hard to ever be sure what is mere posturing, Ronaldo's representatives are at least in some sort of negotiations with Juventus. If the vacancy does not open up this summer, it will sooner rather than later. Madrid president Florentino Perez is often swayed by World Cups. After Mesut Ozil in 2010 and James Rodriguez in 2014, could Hazard be his big post-tournament splurge this year?
Certainly if this were a head-to-head audition against Neymar - and football matches very rarely are, except when impressionable presidents are involved - there was only one winner.
Neymar increasingly feels a victim of his own celebrity, his need to be the star in the biopic of his own life. His best football came at Barcelona, when the weight of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and the entire post-Cruyffian machine forced a measure of submission to the collective.
Without that, at Paris Saint-Germain and with Brazil, his solipsism runs unchecked - as it would if you had been told since you were a child that you were the new Pele.
Hours after the final whistle, he wandered alone around the car park outside the Kazan Arena, either unable to find the Brazil bus or reluctant to board it, a poignant figure struggling under the toxic combination of his own ego and his country's expectations.
Hazard is very different, quieter, more introverted, less self-confident. He will not illuminate a room with a smile. He will not send hordes of impressionable teenagers clutching the latest snap of their hero to the hairdressers.
He may not relish the circus that Madrid so often becomes.
But he will follow a tactical plan, he will not over-elaborate and he will devastate a full-back who gives him half a chance. In a post-Ronaldo world, Hazard may be just the non-celebrity Real Madrid need. Whatever else he is, he is a supremely skilful and effective footballer.
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