Hazard back to his best
Belgian wizard lays down marker in what is best individual display at Euro 2016
ROUND OF 16
(Toby Alderweireld 10, Michy Batshuayi 78, Eden Hazard 80, Yannick Carrasco 90+1)
As the Belgian wizard strolled off the Stadium de Toulouse pitch, the respect he had earned during 80 minutes of spell-binding football became tangible.
The 28,921 spectators, even the Hungarians among them, rose to applaud a superlative individual performance that far outshone any other at Euro 2016.
It was Eden Hazard's greatest show on the international stage to date.
The Belgium skipper silenced his critics - and there are plenty of them - with a vengeance.
The 25-year-old terrorised Hungary with an all-round performance bursting with class at the seams, scoring one goal and setting up another to down their opponents 4-0 yesterday morning (Singapore time) and lift Belgium the quarter-finals.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots' surprising decision to hand him the captain's armband has been vindicated.
The move to install him as the team's leader was met with ridicule when it was first announced.
The Chelsea playmaker has never been as highly regarded in Belgium as, say, Kevin de Bruyne.
A lacklustre 2014 World Cup campaign, during which he played an anonymous role, reinforced a belief that he isn't cut out for an integral role with the national side.
Hazard's mediocre past season with Chelsea didn't help, although his form did improve slightly towards the end of the term.
Just days earlier, former Belgium goalkeeper Jean Marie Pfaff had provided a stinging assessment of the 25-year-old.
He said: "He (Hazard) has the ball, he looks towards the players of the other team - he goes left, he goes right, he makes a trick and people say, 'Oh, Hazard is incredible.'
"But then what does he do? He plays for himself, not the team."
Hazard certainly cannot be accused of selfishness yesterday morning. On a ridiculously slippery field in Toulouse, he was exemplary.
The elegance with which he glided across the turf was mesmerising to watch, and the statistics confirmed his truly world-class display.
In the final third of the pitch, he was peerless. There, he completed 29 out of 32 passes for a pass accuracy rate of 90.6 per cent, and fashioned four goal-scoring chances for his teammates.
During the game, he successfully pulled off 11 dribbling attempts - eight more than anybody else on the pitch - out of 14.
Many were similarly impressed by his defensive work, as he was regularly seen closing down on opponents and helping out in his own penalty box.
That the attacking midfielder recovered the ball 10 times - the highest tally among both sets of players - is testament to his work-rate.
His decisive contributions were timely.
Belgium's 1-0 lead, which came via a Toby Alderweireld header in the 10th minute, was looking increasingly fragile as the game wore on, with Hungary's offensive trio of Adam Szalai, Balazs Dzsudzsak and Gergo Lovrencsics beginning to attack with more purpose.
Then Hazard broke free down the left, and delivered a firm cross to the centre where substitute Michy Batshuayi scored with his first touch to make it 2-0 in the 78th minute.
Moments later, Hazard slammed the door shut on the Hungarians.
Outnumbered in the opponents' half, he somehow weaved his way past three defenders, before wrapping his right foot around the ball to send it on its way to the bottom corner of the net.
It was a perfect end to an immaculate performance, and he soon made way for Marouane Fellaini with nine minutes remaining.
Yannick Carrasco added the fourth goal to complete a resounding Belgian victory, but the talk was all about Hazard.
When he leads the team out to face Wales in the quarter-finals in Lille on Saturday morning, he will meet an equally appreciative audience.
It was the very same place where he began his professional career, and blossomed.
His time there culminated during the 2010/11 campaign, when he led Lille to the domestic cup and league double, en route to becoming the youngest player ever to win the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award.
The last-eight clash is billed as a Gareth Bale v Hazard showdown.
With the form both players are in, it promises to be a battle for the ages.
HAZARD'S WONDER GOAL
TNP ILLUSTRATION: TEOH YI CHIE
Eden Hazard kills the game with a magnificent solo effort, cutting in from the left, evading two challenges and thumping the ball home from the edge of the area.
WHAT THEY SAY
"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. He doesn’t talk much, but he talks with his feet and that’s what he did. He needs to have fun when he’s on the pitch.
— Belgium coach Marc Wilmots (above) on Eden Hazard
"Yes. I had a lot of desire to win. It will be hard to improve on the performance as it was almost perfect. We played well."
"Hazard was fantastic. When he wants to, he’s one of the best players in the world."
— Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois
BY THE NUMBERS
It took Eden Hazard 2,192 Premier League minutes to register three assists for Chelsea last season. At Euro 2016, he's managed three assists in just 351 minutes.