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Brilliant Hazard inspires Belgium´s golden boys

Hungarian football fans know a thing or two about Golden Generations.

And while the likes of Ferenc Puskas and the rest of the Magnificent Magyars belong to a different time, consigned to a chapter in a football encyclopedia, the term continues to be bandied around every time a country turns up at a major tournament with a crop of promising players.

For some it’s a millstone – ask any England or Portugal fan of the past 20 years – but for some it becomes a welcome pressure, an added responsibility on which they thrive.

At his pre-match press conference prior to the last 16 clash with Hungary in Toulouse, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots welcomed the tag of match favourites. “We’ll need to play like a big nation, like a favourite,” he said. Earlier in the week, he said he’d have rather played Spain than Hungary.

It was as if he was challenging his players, asking them to embrace the pressure. If so, he would have been encouraged by their response as Belgium, and Eden Hazard in particular, were terrific.

And while it would be sensible to counter excitement with caution – their opponents arrived in the knockout phase with just one win to their name in a weak Group F – there should be no downplaying of their prospects.

Having enjoyed the luck of the draw – Belgium are in the weaker top half with Wales next before a potential semi-final meeting with either Poland or Portugal – it would be a major surprise if Wilmots’ men were not one of the title-challengers at the Stade de France on July 10.

Indeed, it will take a very good side to deny them a first European Championship crown.

Bar a 15-minute spell in the second half when Thibaut Courtois was called into action to turn over Adam Pinter’s deflected shot, Hungary did not come close. And had it not been for their 40-year-old goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly it would have been an embarrassing night for Bernd Storck and his men.

Time and again the man famous for his baggy grey jogging bottoms denied Belgium with the pick of his saves a stunning fingertip effort to push Kevin De Bruyne’s free-kick on to the bar.

By that point, Toby Alderweireld had nodded Belgium into a 10th-minute lead and it seemed merely a matter of how many goals Belgium would score, especially with captain Hazard looking back to his 2015 best.

The Chelsea man was superb, from first minute to his last. Every time he gained possession, Belgian hopes rose. Being able to beat a man from a standing start is a rare skill in football but Hazard did it at will here.

His probing finally resulted in the second goal, a run down the left followed by a cross that substitute Michy Batshuayi – the replacement for the frustrating Romelu Lukaku – could not fail to put away.

He applied the coup de grace himself shortly after, cutting inside to curl a brilliant shot past a helpless Kiraly.

Hazard then departed the scene to a rousing ovation and knowing the job was done before Yannick Carrasco added a fourth.

Sterner tests no doubt await but on this evidence, this Belgium side may just live up to their Golden Generation label.

Sun 26 Jun, 2016
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