On Saturday, Belgium were knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina, who shoved the Rode Duivels aside by scoring the goal of the match early in the first half, consequently qualifying themselves for the semi-final of the tournament.
In this suspenseful, but for Belgium unfulfilling, quarter-final, Argentina showed they possessed what their opponents have so desperately lacked this World Cup: a star player who could pick his team up from the ground by inspiring them to new heights and scoring goals when it matters most.
Only seven minutes had passed when Gonzalo Higuain, the striker playing in the shadow of captain and national hero Lionel Messi, struck the ball fabulously and thumped it past Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. A stroke of luck was certainly involved before the ball arrived at Higuain’s feet, but there’s no denying it was an excellent finish.
It came at the right time, too. With almost the entire match still ahead of them, the Rode Duivels were immediately forced to battle and push forward, while Argentina sat on roses, relieved of some of the pressure and biding their time.
Eden Hazard tried to change things around, drifting toward the centre from his position out wide, looking increasingly desperate to get ahold of the ball. But for all the talent the Chelsea man possesses, it didn’t come out this World Cup. Like in the group stages, Hazard’s attempts to pierce through the opposition’s defence were smothered time and time again.
Divock Origi, who had replaced Romelu Lukaku after two successful appearances as a substitute, remained largely invisible, and just like Hazard, he was taken off before full-time. So too was Kevin Mirallas, who was replaced by Nacer Chadli near the end of the match, completing manager Marc Wilmots’ trio of attacking substitutions.
The desired effect was not achieved. Despite the involvement of all these players, the Rode Duivels failed to pick the opposition’s defence apart. Like it had in the group stage, Belgium’s front line never looked dangerous, but instead appeared tame, unable to impose itself now that its team’s fate depended on it.
This, of course, reflected most badly on Hazard, who had just had a breakthrough season at his club, Chelsea. In no way close to the fire he had displayed in the Premier League, the winger and attacking midfielder looked as if he was without any inspiration at all.
It was, perhaps, the lowest point of a disappointing tournament for Hazard, who could have—and arguably should have—been much more decisive for his country. When it mattered most, he failed to do what Higuain had done early on in the match: Change the tide with a touch of individualistic brilliance.
Messi has done it too for Argentina. During the group stage, he scored decisive goals against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, even when Argentina had failed to impress as a collective. Of course, the team always comes first, but only with players like Messi, and this time Higuain, do you have a chance at winning the World Cup.
If Belgium are to fulfill their potential, then Hazard will have to take his game up a notch ahead of Euro 2016. He will need the form he displayed for Chelsea last season, and he will need to guide his team to international glory.
Only then will Belgium be able to compete with nations like the one that has just knocked them out.