Belgium go into the European Championship quarter-finals for the first time since losing the 1980 final. Eden Hazard could eclipse his “difficult” season with Chelsea by taking Euro 2016 by storm, according to Axel Witsel. Hazard struggled to make his mark for Belgium as they finished runner-up place in Group E behind Italy.
But in a man-of-the-match performance against Hungary in Toulouse on Sunday, Hazard, captain for the night, turned on the style to score his maiden goal as his country secured a last eight fight against Wales in Lille.
It will be the Red Devils’ first European Championship quarter-finals since they lost the 1980 final.
Although Hazard warned Wales will be a “complicated” side to play, Belgium are now waiting for a repeat performance against Gareth Bale’s side on Friday.
“If we want to go all the way, we need Eden to be playing like he did tonight,” said Zenit Saint Petersburg midfielder Witsel.
“He’s getting better match by match, and it’s good for us. He has all the qualities needed to win the (FIFA) Ballon d’Or (award) or to become the world’s best player.
“For me, he’s already among the world’s best. After his difficult season at Chelsea. He’s playing a lot more freer, scoring goals and giving assists.”
Chelsea teammate and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had little to do in a one-sided performance that saw Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld head a 10th minute lead before Belgium added three more goals in the second half.
Their driving force, he said, was Hazard.
“Hazard was fantastic,” said Courtois. “When he wants to, he’s one of the best players in the world.”
Hazard was handed the captain’s armband by coach Marc Wilmots, and the 25-year-old responded by producing what he said was his best performance in a Belgian shirt.
Wilmots said he told Hazard to do the talking with his boots.
“Everyone knows he talks a lot, but a captain can’t just talk about scoring,” said the Belgium coach.
“I told him I wanted him to score a goal, that he didn’t shoot enough. And tonight, his feet did the talking.
“But I’m not surprised. I know what he’s capable of.”
After Belgium spurned a host of chances in the opening half, they responded to a brief Hungary fightback after the interval in style.
Michy Batshuayi, with his first touch as a substitute, Hazard and Yannick Carrasco scored in the last 12 minutes to wrap up the win in the tournament’s final match in Toulouse.
Hazard did all the creative work for Batshuayi’s 78th minute goal on what was his first touch after coming on as a late substitute.
“Eden did a magnificent job,” said the midfielder.
“On the goal that he set up for me, but also defensively and offensively, he was superb.
“He dribbled past two players to give me the ball. I was unmarked and all I had to do was stick it in the net.
“I’ve got only one thing to say to him: thanks captain.”
Hazard, meanwhile, was quick to salute Belgium’s “collective” display.
“Doing better than tonight would be difficult, I think. Everything was almost perfect. We scored goals, we created a lot of chances, we helped Thibaut (Courtois) keep a clean sheet,” he said.
“All in all it was a great night, but we made it easy for ourselves.”
“In the second half we killed off the match. To do better (against Wales) will be hard. But we’ll try.”