Belgium coach Roberto Martinez believes Eden Hazard can be one of the stars of the World Cup as the Chelsea man prepares to lead his nation into their tournament opener against Panama.
Hazard is the captain of a supremely talented Red Devils side who are determined to improve on runs to the quarter-finals at each of the last two major tournaments.
The 27-year-old attacking midfielder is fresh from winning the FA Cup with Chelsea, scoring the only goal in the final against Manchester United.
Hazard at his best could be the tournament’s standout player, and on Monday he will take to the field at Sochi’s Fisht Stadium, the same venue where Cristiano Ronaldo scored a stunning hat-trick for Portugal against Spain on Friday.
“I think Eden is in a great moment of his career, look at his age, he is the captain, in terms of leadership — he never finds it difficult to show for the ball,” said Martinez on the eve of the game.
“In his one v one situations he is as good as anyone in the world.”
Hazard is surrounded by outstanding attacking talents, from Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne to Napoli’s Dries Mertens and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku.
Such a concentration of quality explains why they are so strongly fancied in a group also containing England.
“You cannot compare one player to another, but I just feel now we have players in great moments of their careers and they are ready to make a real mark in the World Cup. Kevin De Bruyne is in exactly the same moment,” added Martinez.
The Spaniard, whose press conferences are conducted entirely in English, is perhaps exactly what is required by a Belgian side who have in the past been handicapped by divisions between Flemish and French-speaking groups in the squad.
Such is the quality at his disposal that he felt able to leave Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan out altogether, but Belgium need to improve on their underwhelming performances at the last World Cup and at Euro 2016, when they never really found their best form.
“We are privileged to have this group of players, not just with their skills — it is more their attitude, and the way that they are ambassadors for Belgian football,” said Martinez.
– Panama into the unknown –
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is one of the many survivors from four years ago, and he admitted that past experience can be invaluable.
Belgium now know what to expect, while Panama are entering the unknown.
Their coach Hernan Dario Gomez described Belgium as having “the best players in the world, except for Messi and Cristiano.”
He sees them as candidates to win the title, although perhaps Iceland’s achievement in holding Lionel Messi’s Argentina to a draw on Saturday signalled the way for their fellow World Cup debutants.
“Iceland qualified ahead of Croatia and did well in the Euros as well, and they were coming up against an Argentina side who are not on the same level as Belgium just now.
“There is a bigger gulf between Belgium and Panama. Nobody denies they are the favourites, but if we have a good day we can get something.”
The heat and humidity here in southern Russia could help them, and Martinez is not underestimating the Central Americans.
“We respect immensely Panama, they are one of the stories of the World Cup,” said Martinez, who is without injured defenders Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen.