Eden Hazard knew the question was coming and he did not miss a beat. Had this been his best match for Belgium? “Yes,” was the characteristically precise response from a man of few words. Hungary had been torn apart from the opening minutes and, while Belgium should have been out of sight well before the closing stages, the element of doubt allowed their captain to apply two flourishes that may have far-reaching consequences.
The first came 12 minutes from time, more than an hour after Toby Alderweireld’s early goal and with a previously bedraggled Hungary beginning to ask serious questions. Hazard’s dribble down the left flank, effectively passing to himself as team-mates came back from offside positions, opened up space and an inch-perfect centre allowed the substitute Michy Batshuayi to score with his first touch. It only took a minute for better to follow; he had earlier been thwarted by Gabor Kiraly after cutting in from the left but this time a low, accurate shot across the goalkeeper from a similar spot bore no opposition and the plaudits could be lined up.
“There were a lot of people absolutely amazed when I gave the captain’s armband to Eden Hazard, but you have to let this little man grow,” said Marc Wilmots, who entrusted him with the leadership after Vincent Kompany’s pre-tournament injury. “He doesn’t say a lot, but his football does his talking on the pitch.”
Hazard had been enjoying himself well before that late flurry, which was crowned when Yannick Carrasco ran clear in the game’s final action, and he was not the only one. This was the manner of performance you feel Belgium should produce more often, the first-half rapidly merging into a blur of counterattacks, chances and half-chances that invariably ended up at the hands, feet, chest or – in tipping a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick onto the crossbar – fingers of Kiraly.
The most common accusation pointed at Belgium is that they do not move the ball quickly enough when faced with massed ranks; fortunately they were up against nothing of the sort here, allowing a tentative Hungary a quantity of possession they might not have bargained for before pouncing on the regular occasions it was squandered.
They had already come close through Romelu Lukaku before Alderweireld, reading the flight of a De Bruyne set piece perfectly, ran far too easily off Gergo Lovrencsics to score the opener. It was, for the next 35 minutes, a shoot-out between Belgium’s forwards and Kiraly, but for whom Hungary would have had little stake in second-half matters. He saved three times from De Bruyne and, perhaps most impressively, from a clean-through Dries Mertens; Belgium had been excellent but the concern was that profligacy might yet harm them.*
“I said at half-time that we couldn’t come in at 1-0,” Wilmots said. “We should have been at least 3-0 up with the chances we had. I told everyone to stay calm and not get annoyed, and to keep going because they were moving the ball very well. When we’re able to move the ball quickly, we’re able to take out the opposition.”
They did so less easily for much of the second-half. Group stage surprise package Hungary, hindered by a warm-up injury to the influential midfielder Laszlo Kleinheisler, had only threatened from long range in the first 45 minutes but were seriously threatening an equaliser before Hazard caught light. Thomas Vermaelen, who will miss the quarter-final with Wales after being booked, reacted exceptionally to stop Adam Szalai heading in a Balazs Dzsudzsak cross and they came closer when Thibaut Courtois acrobatically saved a deflected drive from Adam Pinter. If only, thought Bernd Storck, they had been as switched on from the beginning.
“In the first half I was disappointed because we conceded from a set piece and weren’t as compact as we needed to be,” the Hungary manager said. “In the second half we were better and created a few opportunities. We can leave with our heads held high. We saw the difference on the pitch. We’ve never played against a team like that.”
Belgium have never seen Hazard on form like that. Too often he has seemed manacled when playing under Wilmots, whose decision to give him the captaincy was far from popular. Any more of this would give the impression that Belgium are gathering speed at just the right time, and there is another motivating factor at play. The quarter-final on Friday will be played in Lille, where Hazard spent the first seven years of his career, and his wish for a return was common knowledge. “It is his hometown and that is why he played so well tonight,” Wilmots said.
Perhaps that underplayed Hungary’s generosity but suddenly the draw is wide open for both Belgium and Hazard to seize their moment.
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