Learn from humble Bale, Hazard
Belgian wizard can learn from Welsh dragon's selfless sacrifice
WALES v BELGIUM
(Tomorrow, 2.50am, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
Eden Hazard believes he's returning to his spiritual home. Gareth Bale is home.
Their meeting place is Lille, the venue for their quarter-final clash tomorrow morning (Singapore time) and just 100 kilometres from the Belgian border.
Hazard assumes the familiar territory will help, but Bale has already annexed the tournament.
Hazard made his name at Lille, spending seven years at the French club. In some respects, Bale has made his name at Euro 2016.
Taken at face value, such a claim sounds absurd.
The Welshman arrived at the tournament with his second Champions League medal in three years.
He wears the burden of the world's most expensive player lightly, swishing it aside like a ponytail.
But the initial stage of his explosive career was lumbered with that asterisk, a mighty talent raised among minnows, the shepherd born in the land of sheep.
And then major tournament qualification came along, supposedly earning him entry to that eternal waiting room for frustrated geniuses, joining Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in seeing out their international careers with mediocre teammates.
That unfortunate chasm between a blessed individual cursed with an inferior nation has eaten away at both Messi and Ronaldo for a decade.
It all ended in tears for Messi at the weekend, when he stepped over the broken dreams of another Copa America failure and towards retirement. He couldn't carry Argentina any longer.
But Bale basks in the responsibility, as if breaking free from the old Welsh shackles by qualifying for a major tournament was reward enough. Anything else was a bonus.
Whenever Messi, and Ronaldo for that matter, swop club freedom for national service, they often look haunted. Bale looks liberated.
He should conduct interviews from a sun lounger, such is his laidback demeanour and insistence that the Welsh sojourn is only missing buckets and spades and ice cream.
"It's like being on holiday," he said yesterday, in reference to the training camp that other grumpy footballers often compare to prison.
Bale's goofy honesty and obvious pride at steering Weles towards their first quarter-final since 1958 genuinely illuminate a bit of a gloomy tournament.
France has fallen for a thoroughbred that glides so lightly he gives the impression he could run barefooted across broken glass without breaking the skin. He comes with a purity of purpose that sets him apart from the cocooned multi-millionaires often accused of viewing these events as a chance to boost their marketing profile.
Bale's devotion is unequivocal and absolute. "The dragon on my shirt," he said of his motivation. "That's all I need."
All Hazard needs is the love of a new club. That's the cynical view of exasperated Chelsea supporters, struggling to recognise the Belgian revelation scoring a perfect 10 in the Round-of-16, 4-0 win against Hungary.
Hazard didn't just dance in the shop window. He wore neon, flashing lights and conducted a bombastic orchestra for interested parties.
The 25-year old completed 12 dribbles - four more than any other player at Euro 2016 so far. His three assists in three games already equal his entire output in 31 Premier League appearances last season.
Hazard's figures are more compelling than Bale's, whose dribbles and goals made him one of the most prolific performers in the group stages.
And the Welshman is yet to utterly overwhelm an opponent as Hazard did against Hungary.
But Bale boasts the better narrative. The 26-year-old is the leader of plucky underdogs, the affable legend always available for a pass from desperate teammates or a quote for pushy journalists, always ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Hazard's occasional poutiness and the tendency to pick and choose his performances can epitomise Belgium's class of golden superstars.
They should be world-beaters, but are often a box of Forrest Gump's chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.
But Marc Wilmots' men improved as the tournament progressed and the quarter-final provides the best opportunity yet for a collection of glittering names to search for an unbreakable team bond.
Wales already have that in abundance. So they search for Bale.
Chris Coleman's 3-5-2, which often drops to a 5-3-2, ensures a compact, counter-attacking format not too dissimilar to Leicester City's direct approach.
Possession isn't a prerequisite for success. It's all about getting the ball to Bale.
He dominated the dribbling stats in the group stages because he offers a safety valve, a chance for teammates to alleviate the pressure, to breathe, to push those chests out a little further.
Bale makes Wales' reality seem almost dreamy. Hazard can make Belgium's longstanding dream a reality.
Whatever the result in Lille, Bale can't lose. He's won over a tough French crowd with his integrity and genuine warmth.
Humility goes a long way, as Hazard discovered after his selfless showing against Hungary.
If the Belgian wants to surpass the humble superstar, he must continue to play like one.
- Appearances: 4
- Minutes: 353
- Goals: 3
- Assists: 0
- Shots per game: 4.8
- pass success percentage:68.1%
- Aerials won per match: 3.5
- Appearances: 4
- Minutes: 351
- Goals: 1
- Assists: 3
- Shots per game: 2.3
- pass success percentage: 88.4%
- Aerial won per match: 0.3
This is about Wales versus Belgium, not me up against him. There are 11 players on the field and it does not matter if he or i score, it is about which team win.''
— Gareth Bale on his showdown with Eden Hazard
Bale is, for me, perhaps slightly higher than Hazard. He's been playing longer at that level. At key moments at club level Bale is the man and he stands there, while Hazard is still not consistent.
— Belgium defender Jordan Lukaku, the younger brother of striker Romelu
The Dragon on my shirt. That's all i need.
— Gareth Bale on his motivation