MOGI DAS CRUZES, Brazil (AP) — Jose Mourinho has sung the praises of Eden Hazard. The best club in Paris, the city of lights, has wooed him. And Eden has finally arrived in his garden — the World Cup — wearing the No. 10 jersey, just as the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane did before him.
Now comes the hard part: Living up to his billing.
“Water off a duck’s back,” Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said of the pressure being piled on his star player. Hazard certainly has not made it any easier on himself with a lackluster preparation campaign.
Still, his teammates are confident he will perform when needed.
“Whatever happens, he will be there,” defender Jan Vertonghen said.
Hazard gets his first shot on Tuesday, when he is called into action against Algeria. Belgium is the heavy favorite to win Group H, which also contains Russia and South Korea.
The 23-year-old Belgian is among a handful of creative players, along with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Mess, considered capable of giving the tournament a memorable World Cup moment.
Hazard is coming off a standout season at Chelsea, where his performances earned him the Premier League’s Young Player of the Year award.
He is deceptively fast, has vision and instinct, can deliver a pass with pinpoint precision and produce a booming shot when needed. And he is unpredictable, with the canny ability to provide victory with a solo move when a team is playing badly.
“Eden, on form, can stand the comparison with Messi,” Vertonghen said. Mourinho, a coach rarely known for lavish praise, has said that with time Hazard could be among the greatest in the world. PSG, with Qatari backing, has sought to lure him back to the French league, where he learned the trade with Lille. Rumors are it would make him among the best-paid players in the world.
So with such extraordinary skills, such accolades, should a player like that defend as well, expending energy that could be useful for a burst of creative genius?
It has become an issue over the past weeks, as Hazard has sometimes seemed lackluster during games and training sessions.
History would say: no.
When Brazil coach Joao Saldanha suggested in the runup to the 1970 World Cup that Pele should do more defensive work, it was considered an outrage and helped lead the coach out the door before Pele lifted the World Cup under another coach.
Few would be able to easily recall a defensive move from Maradona in 1986, but his dazzling dribbles against England and Belgium surely made the difference as the playmaker led Argentina to the title.
And France coach Aime Jacquet knew Zidane held the key to success if France was to lift the cup as host in 1998. Zidane was given free reign and he delivered.
Yet football has become an ever more physical clash and reached the point where something as seemingly small as a stride too few, even by a top player, can be ruthlessly exploited. When Chelsea played Atletico Madrid for a place in the Champions League final last April, it was two defensive lapses from Hazard that let the Spaniards poach two goals in London.
Belgium is counting on it to be different in Brazil.
“He certainly has the will to put in the work,” Vertonghen said. “He wants it very much.”
Much has been made of the relationship between coach Wilmots and Hazard. They have had long talks on the pitch. Once they stood forehead to forehead, more in contemplation than confrontation.
Hazard has not really taken to dominating coaches in Belgium. When he was substituted in a 2009 game against Turkey, he didn’t take it lightly. He immediately left the stadium and went to eat a hamburger at a concession stand when the game was still going on.
It is that kind of fiery side that Wilmots needs to manage.
No problem, Wilmots says, “He doesn’t really worry me.”
Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert
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