Hazard warning as Belgium look to old hand in Qatar
Kevin De Bruyne's mercurial talent is indisputable and Romelu Lukaku will be a powerful force up front, so the big question for Belgium heading to the World Cup in Qatar is whether they can get the best out of playmaker Eden Hazard.
The Real Madrid midfielder has barely played in the Spanish capital this season but Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has kept faith and started him in both Nations League games in September.
Injuries and a loss of form have pushed Hazard down the pecking order at his club, and that in turn has raised questions about the 31-year-old's place in the national side and whether he will be in peak condition in Qatar.
"The lack of minutes and game time is there but he is in a good mindset and is looking forward to being on the pitch," Martinez told reporters. "I see an energy and a happiness around Eden, which I did not see six months ago."
Hazard played for more than an hour against Wales and Netherlands in September and, while there was some rustiness, there were also flashes of the player who was such a key man for Chelsea in the Premier League before his 2019 switch to Madrid.
He remains an important figure in the Belgium dressing room, having featured in all but one of their 12 games at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.
He captained the side to their best-ever finish four years ago, their third place helping him to win the Silver Ball as the second-best player at the tournament. That is the footballer Martinez is desperate to resurrect.
Experience and guile are perhaps now his biggest attributes and his coach will know that when it gets to the latter rounds in Qatar, he needs players with cool heads and leadership on the pitch.
Despite the emergence of De Bruyne as potentially the best midfielder in the world, Hazard is still viewed as the leader of the country's Golden Generation under Martinez, having made his international debut aged 17 in 2008.
"I know what I can do. Now I want to get in shape for the World Cup. I'm happiest when I play," Hazard told RTL. "When I play, I give it my all. I've always said the old Eden Hazard will come back when he plays. I just need to get back into the rhythm."
Hazard may be a risk given his situation in Madrid but, with Martinez able to select 26 players in his squad for Qatar, it is surely one worth taking.
BELGIUM HAVE ALL THE TOOLS TO CRAFT A WORLD CUP TROPHY WIN
For many of Belgium's Golden Generation, the World Cup in Qatar represents a last shot at football immortality and victory would be a crowning glory for a side that have no trophies to show for their outstanding talent and huge promise.
Many of their leading players are over the age of 30 and only a few will be around for the next World Cup in 2026, so it is now or never for most to turn their bronze medal from four years ago into the coveted gold.
They have a settled squad and a strong technical team under Spanish coach Roberto Martinez, whose contract comes to an end after the World Cup.
He counts among his assistants 1998 World Cup winner Thierry Henry.
Belgium have gone into past tournaments full of promise and been left wondering what might have been, while their form over the last year has been patchy and below par.
A third-place finish in Russia after semi-final defeat to France was their best showing yet at a World Cup, but they clearly wanted more.
A quarter-final loss to Italy at Euro 2020 was also a bitter disappointment in a competition where they were among the favourites.
They can at least say that, on both those occasions, they went out to the eventual champions.
Belgium face Croatia, Morocco and Canada in Group F in Qatar, a pool they should be able to negotiate comfortably, even if publicly the ever-amicable Martinez is wary.
"Croatia are always a competitive team at international level, and Morocco? They're a team we know very well because there are many (Moroccan) players who play in Belgium and have dual nationality," Martinez told TSN.
"Canada, for us, is always a hidden threat. We followed their qualification in CONCACAF and it's been impressive to see this team, with their consistency, with their energy and youth and team spirit that they have –- and getting results against USA and Mexico. It's going to be a really, really competitive group."
Belgium have an abundance of quality in attack, with creativity, speed and guile, but defensively they have struggled and that problem was starkly laid bare when they were thumped 4-1 at home by Netherlands in June.
Before their 1-0 loss to the same Dutch side in their last international in September, they had scored in an astonishing 49 consecutive games since the defeat by the same scoreline to France at the 2018 World Cup.
Conversely, since October 2021 they have kept only two clean sheets in 12 games -- against Poland and minnows Burkina Faso.
But Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is among the best in the world, while the defensive pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have an astonishing 264 caps between them.
Martinez can marry the vast experience of midfielders Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard and the mercurial Kevin De Bruyne with the energy of Leandro Trossard, Youri Tielemans and maybe wildcard Amadou Onana.
Up front there are powerful options in Romelu Lukaku, if he can overcome his recent injury problems, Michy Batshuayi and new man Lois Openda.
All the tools are there, but can Martinez craft something meaningful with them?
BELGIUM AT THE WORLD CUP
Following is a statbox on Belgium at the World Cup.
FIFA Ranking: 2
Belgium have qualified for eight of the last 10 World Cup tournaments, missing out in 2006 and 2010, and were one of four European nations at the very first in Uruguay in 1930. Their best finish is a bronze medal in 2018 when they beat England to third, while their only other semi-final appearance was in Mexico in 1986 when they lost to Diego Maradona's Argentina and finished fourth. They have been to 13 World Cups in all.
How they qualified:
They went unbeaten in their eight qualifiers, winning six of them, and had little trouble topping a group that also contained Wales, Czech Republic, Estonia and Belarus. They scored 25 goals, more than three per game, and conceded six with a haul of 20 points that was five more than the second-placed Welsh. They dropped points only in Cardiff and Prague.
Home and away losses to Netherlands, including a 4-1 defeat in Brussels, made for a disappointing recent Nations League campaign, but Belgium have proved they have goals in them. Their 1-0 defeat in Amsterdam was the first time in 50 matches they had failed to score, dating back to a loss by the same margin to France at the 2018 World Cup. Keeping clean sheets has been a issue against more fancied teams and that could be an Achilles heel later in the tournament in Qatar. Since the start of October 2021, Belgium have won five of their 12 internationals, losing four and with three draws. The highlight was a 6-1 home win over Poland in June.