Belgium playmaker Eden Hazard hopes to seize on the early departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to become the star of the World Cup.
Argentina lost 4-3 to France in the first match of the round of 16 on Saturday, and Portugal joined them in making a swift exit when they were beaten 2-1 by Uruguay later the same day.
The absence of two players who have monopolised the Ballon d’Or and dominated the headlines at club and international level for more than a decade has left room for a rival to grab the spotlight in Russia, where the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe loom as potential replacements.
Speaking ahead of his team’s meeting with Japan in Rostov-on-Don, Hazard welcomed suggestions it could be his time to make an impact on the big stage.
“I hope so, they’re not in the World Cup, so now it’s time to shine,” he said.
“Yeah, I just want to go through the quarter-final, semi-final and maybe the final.
“We play for Belgium, we have a lot of good players, but of course I want to go to the final.
“Messi and Ronaldo are out now but a lot of good players are still in the World Cup. We’ll see at the end.
“It’s in our hands. We need to play together, give everything and see what happens.”
— Belgian Red Devils (@BelRedDevils) July 1, 2018
Chelsea star Hazard also rejected suggestions Belgium’s players already have one eye on a potential meeting with Brazil in the quarter-finals.
“We play Japan so we’re not sure to be qualified and we’re not sure whether Brazil is going to go ahead,” he said.
“We’re not thinking about a game against Brazil, we’re thinking about our game against Japan tomorrow. We’re just taking it one game at a time.”
Hazard is now entering his third major tournament knockout stage with Belgium, having lost in the quarter-finals at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and to Wales at Euro 2016.
And he is confident those painful defeats will equip the team to cope with the pressure this time around.
“I’m a lot stronger than two years ago, four years ago, definitely,” he said.
“I have more experience as well. In Brazil it was our first major competition, all of us together. Knockout matches have a lot to do with experience.
“Now I think most of us are between 25 and 30, 33 in the team. We have the same level of maturity and I think this will make the difference in the knockout stages.
“We know what to do and what not to do. We’re much better off than two years ago, when there were injuries just before the match. Japan are very different to Wales.
“We will take it very seriously and what is important is to win the match and progress to the quarter-finals.”
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