SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — Eden Hazard knows it’s time to live up to his name at the World Cup, and to make sure the United States realizes what that stands for.
The Belgian playmaker is aware his country is counting on a match-long display of Hazard dazzle against the United States on Tuesday.
“In this World Cup, I have yet to play a great match, even if I had good moves which were decisive,” Hazard acknowledged.
And the instructions from coach Marc Wilmots for today’s game are clear because he expects Hazard “to take charge of the match” and “impose himself as a leader.”
Unlike the players who have confirmed their star status at the World Cup, like Neymar for Brazil and Messi for Argentina, Hazard is still finding his range. Within Europe he is one of the half dozen best creative players, but at the World Cup so far he hasn’t consistently delivered on that potential.
Belgium has escaped with two victories in the games Hazard was starting, each time with the playmaker providing decisive assists. In both games, he was playing below par until those big moments.
“They are asking me to be decisive, and it has been tough,” Hazard said. The responsibility falling on the 23-year-old Chelsea playmaker could be even bigger if Vincent Kompany, captain and undisputed leader of team, is still sidelined with an injured groin.
“A lot is asked from a guy who has already given us a lot,” said Wilmots, even though the coach himself has publicly said more was expected from Hazard.
“I am sure that we will see a great Eden Hazard who will be decisive again,” midfielder Axel Witsel said.
Time and again in group play, Hazard’s creativity was stifled by defensive lineups which contained him until they were too fatigued.
“It was tough to express myself,” Hazard said. “There was very little space against teams that defended fully.” He expects it to change on Tuesday because unlike the group matches, teams have to come looking for a goal to go through.
“If they want to go through, they will have to move up field because we defend well,” Hazard said. “And I hope it will open space so I can show a very good Eden.”
Given space, his first-touch football, feints and pinpoint passing has disarmed some of the best defenses in the world. And don’t underestimate the quality of his freekicks.
“I hope they will commit fouls because it will bring freekicks,” said Hazard.
He is also coming off more than a week of good rest, disregarding five minutes of play against South Korea, while the U.S. defenders are coming off a tough game against Germany last Thursday.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann knows all too well what he is up against. “You have to have a special eye on him. You have to double cover everything that goes out, you have to shift tremendously,” Klinsmann said Monday.
Compounding the difficulties for the U.S. defense should be the inclusion of creative midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who has been close to Hazard all through Belgium’s youth ranks. He also was rested for the final group game, when Belgium already had qualified.
On the eve of the game, Wilmots announced that Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen had not recovered fully from a right hamstring injury in time to be ready for Tuesday’s match. If Belgium advances into Saturday’s quarterfinal in Brasilia, he’s likely to be available.
Kompany did train with the group on the eve of the game, but it was unclear how the injury reacted to the training session.
Wilmots said he expected Marouane Fellaini to recover from calf soreness to be available for the U.S. game.
NO WAFFLING HERE: Waffle House doesn’t serve Belgian waffles and certainly won’t start now.
The Georgia-based restaurant chain took to its Twitter account Monday to proclaim, “We don’t believe in Belgium waffles.” Or Belgian waffles, as a follower quickly corrected. But the sentiment, a riff on American fans’ “I believe that we will win” chant,” was popular a day before the U.S. faces Belgium in the World Cup.
Restaurant spokeswoman Meghan Irwin says it’s all in good fun. Earlier, when a follower asked for the restaurant’s opinion on Belgian waffles, it tweeted: “We dominate them.”