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Hazard must bloom into bona-fide superstar as Eden project comes full circle

Visit Lille 48 hours before or after matches and it’s hard to know Euro 2016 is taking place. The city is still bustling, vibrant, from the old town’s cobbled walkways to the nightclub district of Rue de Solferino, but football shirts and flags disappear from view.

Something is stirring this week, though. A handful of Lille OSC strips are dotted around the streets, stickers cropping up at metro stations. A hero is – quietly – coming home.

For Eden Hazard, this tournament has been building towards this moment. The Belgium captain showed jolts of his electric best in the 4-0 dispatch of Hungary in the last 16, knowing that a quarter-final back in the city where he began his professional career was on the horizon.

“I was really motivated to go through,” he said. “It will be a great celebration on Friday and I hope there will be plenty of fans there to take part.”

That seems guaranteed. Hazard’s last game in Lille colours saw him score a hat-trick against Nancy after claiming a second Ligue 1 Player of the Year prize in succession. The club’s brightest young prospect in a generation bid farewell by stamping an unforgettable image on the mind of the supporters.

“He’s the best thing they ever sent to us,” one local merchant said of Belgium, a country that lies 10 kilometres from Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Four years on from his departure, the brightest glimmer in Belgium’s golden generation has some questions to answer. Rip-roaring as he was in his first three seasons with Chelsea, last term brought a crash back down to earth as deafening as it was surprising. Four goals and four assists in the Premier League, no trophies, fitness worries and constant talk of a return to the continent – it all seemed a little too much for a player compared to Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane before his 21st birthday.

Euro 2016 has proved a welcome respite. After the frustrations of the Italy defeat, the captain has flourished in a gung-ho attack that seems to thrive as much by ignoring coach Marc Wilmots as by heeding any tactical tweaking.

Much like the team, Hazard appears to be getting better at just the right moment. He scored a sublime solo goal and set up another against Hungary in a match in which he completed 12 dribbles – the most of any single player in a Euro 2016 game. 

The desire to prove himself on hallowed ground could see him produce his best form yet. An unflinching drive to reach the pinnacle of the sport has carried him to this point from the moment he caught the eye as a ‘boy next door’ prodigy (literally, in this case – the Hazard family home backs onto the pitch of childhood team Royal Stade Brainois).

“There was a steely determination about him. He was actually fearless,” Fathi Ennabli, youth coordinator of his next side – Tubize – said in 2012. “He was always up against bigger, often older, boys, but it never fazed him. 

“No amount of pressure could shake his self-belief. He knew how good he was and what he could do.”

That fearlessness is set for a pivotal test. A sense of boundless but unfulfilled promise still lingers about Hazard, in much the same way that those few number 26 shirts fleetingly catch the eye on the streets of Lille.

Firing his side past Wales on Friday could give him the chance to face Italy, and future Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, in next week’s final. More immediately, it will be a moment to savour for a local faithful – one still waiting for a favourite son to truly take the world by storm.

Thu 30 Jun, 2016
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