Messi and Ronaldo are not here and now it's our time to shine, insists Hazard
Eden Hazard is convinced Belgium will finally live up to their golden generation billing in Russia and accepts this is his moment to shine in the wake of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's World Cup exits.
Speaking two years to the day since Belgium suffered a shock 3-1 quarter-final defeat to Wales at Euro 2016, Hazard insisted they could ill afford a repeat of that calamity against another underdog, Japan, at the Rostov Arena today.
But the Chelsea forward believes Belgium are a different proposition from then and the World Cup in Brazil four years ago, when they lost with a whimper to Argentina in the last eight.
"Two years ago we had this match against Wales but we know what to do and what not to do," Hazard said.
"We are much better off now. It is time to shine, definitely. We have top players. We just need to play together, give everything. It is in our hands.
"If we think this is going to be easy (against Japan), we may lose so we need to be very serious, very focused right from the beginning."
Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens have scored seven of Belgium's nine goals at the tournament and all three will be restored to the starting line-up against Japan after manager Roberto Martinez rung the changes in the 1-0 victory over England.
Hazard believes they are at the peak of their powers and are determined to deliver where Messi and Ronaldo failed.
"Romelu, Dries and myself, I think we have reached our best level since we've started playing football," Hazard said.
"I am a lot stronger than two years ago or four years ago in Brazil, definitely, and I have a lot more experience as well.
"I think most of us are between 25 and 30 now so we have the same level of maturity and I think this will make the difference in the knockout stage.
"Messi and Ronaldo are not in the World Cup so now it is time to shine. I want to go through the quarter-final, semi-final and maybe the final."
Hazard said he has a particular connection with Lukaku, whom he believes has elevated his game several notches over the past year. "It's quite automatic between the two of us," he said.
"When Romelu sees us with the ball, it could be Kevin (De Bruyne), Dries or myself, he always tries to offer something.
"He doesn't need much to score. Maybe a few years ago he needed more but not now.
"If he has three scoring opportunities, he scores two goals most of the time.
"He is much better than a few years ago. His defensive work is very good as well, he didn't do as much in defence before but he has a lot of qualities in attack and when he plays he scores."
Assuming Belgium can overcome Japan, tournament favourites Brazil are their likely opponents in the quarter-final.
Either a solid and effective Uruguay or an ultra-talented France would then await in the last four.
If Belgium reach the final at the Luzhniki Stadium in just under a fortnight's time, their place there will be well deserved.
First, though, they must beat Japan and Martinez is taking nothing for granted.
"They are footballers with an incredible energy and a great capacity to get really high up the pitch very quickly," he said of Japan, who finished as Group H runners-up thanks to a better disciplinary record than Senegal.
"This Japan team shows a lot of good experience, a lot of players who have played in big leagues in Europe for a long time.
"They know what it takes to win a game of this calibre. This is a group of players that know what they are doing. I expect a very difficult game."
The former Everton manager is confident that his players are ready to deliver.
"The group is in a very good moment," he said. "Mentally and physically, you just get the feeling the players are desperate to be on the pitch. I feel the players are ready to get their rhythm as quick as they can."
Japan coach Akira Nishino's decision to rest six players in the 1-0 defeat by Poland almost backfired as his side crawled through on the fair play rule but he hopes the move will benefit his team against Belgium.
"Japan were exhausted when they got to the last 16 in 2002 and 2010, there was nothing left, we exhausted everything in the group, but now we are not fatigued going into this last 16 match," he said.
© Daily Telegraph, London
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