Belgium captain Eden Hazard has a stage at the Nations League finals this week to make up for the setbacks of recent years as he struggled for form following a series of niggling injuries.
The 30-year-old attacker is a long-time mainstay of his national team and one of its “golden generation”, but in the last two seasons his career has been stagnant, despite a dream move to Real Madrid.
His playing time was restricted by a litany of complaints, mostly after surgery on his ankle but also including various muscle strains after battling with the demands of his 100-million euro transfer from Chelsea.
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He almost missed out on the European Championship in mid-year but was given time to regain some fitness so that Belgium could use him, first as an impact substitute and then in the starting line-up.
They were his first appearances in about 18 months for the national team but he featured in all three of September’s World Cup qualifiers, with Belgium coach Roberto Martinez declaring that the tricky wide player was looking “back to his best”.
The Nations League finals this week are the perfect opportunity to prove Martinez right. Hazard comes into the tournament after being involved in all but one of Real Madrid’s LaLiga and Champions League matches, and with the chance to re-establish the credentials lost over a frustrating two-year period.
Belgium begin with a semi-final in Turin on Thursday against neighbours France. If Hazard can lead Belgium to success in the mini-tournament, also involving hosts Italy and Spain, it will do much to restore his reputation.
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He has had to deal with enormous pressure and media scrutiny in Spain and, though he is a jovial character, the frustration of not being able to make an impact with Real has been hard to deal with, according to some of his colleagues.
“Eden has been a little down,” club and national teammate Thibaut Courtois has said previously, “but Real Madrid waits for no one, not even Hazard.”
Martinez feels that is now all in the past.
“Eden is ready to make a real impact again,” he said after last month’s trio of wins for the top-ranked Belgians.