Commentary

Hazard heads home to the garden of Eden

Belgium's 2-0 loss to Italy in its opening game at Euro 2016 was a wakeup call for the Red Devils, winners of their next three games, all by shutout.

The loss, which relegated Belgium to second place, behind Italy, was a gift as it avoided the Bracket of Death with a path to the final would have included Spain, Germany and possibly host France. Instead, the Red Devils got Hungary and Wales and will the face Portugal or Poland if they continue on to the final.

The key to the turnaround has been Belgium's much-maligned star Eden Hazard, who was named the 2015 EPL Player of the Year with Chelsea but didn't score a goal the next season until April. Hazard's drop in form was a big reason Chelsea slumped to 10th place in 2015-16.

But Hazard has had assists in Belgium's last three games -- wins over Ireland (3-0), Sweden (1-0) and Hungary (4-0) -- matching his total all season for Chelsea, and he also scored in the win over Hungary in what was termed his best game ever with the national team.

Hazard's reward is a return to Lille for Friday's quarterfinal against Wales. He moved to Lille, just across the border from Belgium, at the age of 14 and made his pro debut two years later. He was named the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010 and its Player of the Year in 2011 and 2012. Since leaving for Chelsea in 2012, Lille has moved into the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in nearby Villeneuve-d'Ascq.

"We are lucky enough to play in Lille now, a city I know very well," Hazard said. "I don't know the new stadium that well -- I have never played there. But I was really motivated to go through. It will be a great celebration on Friday and I hope there will be plenty of fans there to share it."

Belgium is the most expensive team at Euro 2016 in terms of the valuation of its players, based on their most recent transfer fees, and that might go up. European champion Real Madrid is reported to be set to offer Spanish striker Alvaro Morata and cash to Chelsea for the 25-year-old Hazard in a deal valued at $100 million.

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, Hazard's teammate at Chelsea and with the Red Devils, probably knows Hazard as well as anyone on the national team.

"If he's feeling good," says Courtois, "he's the best in the world."

Hazard appears to be thriving since being named Belgium captain in place of injured Vincent Kompany.

"There are a lot of people who are amazed that I gave him the captain's armband but you have to let this little man grow up," says Belgium coach Marc Wilmots. "He doesn't talk much, but he talks with his feet and that's what he did today. I told him that I wanted him to score a goal by cutting inside. He needs to have fun when he's on the field."
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