NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia - Eden Hazard leads his team into Friday's World Cup quarter-final match against Brazil on a stage built to showcase his talent, but whether Belgium get the full benefit of his mercurial ability is to be seen.
Hazard is undoubtedly one of the stars of the tournament in Russia and at 27-years-old, wearing the captain’s armband, at the peak of his powers. But there is always a nagging doubt that when the going gets tough, the attacking midfielder might once again prove anonymous.
It happened at the last World Cup in Brazil and two years ago at the European Championship when Belgium's 'golden generation' stood on the brink of delivering on their potential but then imploded. In the 2014 quarter-final against Argentina he drifted out of the game and was replaced after 75 ineffective minutes as Lionel Messi won their head-to-head in a 1-0 Argentina victory.
Two years later, the stage was set for him to lead Belgium past outsiders Wales in the Euro quarter-finals but, in the face of determined defending, he faded when it mattered most and drifted out of the game with a shock 3-1 loss.
Hazard is admired for his attacking flair, ability to run at defences and finishing but it is his maverick genius that sets him apart. "Ice baths, massages, he doesn’t really do all that stuff," team mate Marouane Fellaini in a recent TV documentary over Hazard.
Michy Batshuayi told of his amazement when Hazard went to the Chelsea gym for the first time -- four years after he first signed for the club. "I told him recently that he must thank God for the talent he has been given. He answered, 'Maybe I should thank him a little’," recalled former club mate Demba Ba.
World Cup knockout football is not easy, but we have a great atmosphere and this team never gives up. Thank you for your support everyone, we needed it yesterday. Quarter finals we’re coming, we are #REDTOGETHER 🇧🇪 #fifaworldcup #family 😈 pic.twitter.com/0LbeOrsyS5
It all comes easy to Hazard, rarely bothered by the pressure and expectation. That supposed indifference was often a cause of irritation for managers like Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. But Belgium see what he is capable of and have placed their faith firmly in him.
"He’s a not a natural leader like Kompany, but rather a leader who shows through example on the field," fullback Thomas Meunier said last month. "He’s got extraordinary qualities, does things other players cannot. And you don’t just run him over. He’s very strong on his feet so it’s difficult to take the ball off him. I think he’s the complete player."
Ominously for Brazil, his team mates believe Hazard is in the form of his life and ready to deliver. "I’ve known him for years and the way he has trained and played over the last weeks has been exceptional,” said goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, who is also at Chelsea. "I think he can reach another level."