July 05, 2014

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) When Belgium needed a final push to stay in the World Cup, off went Eden Hazard - off to the bench that is. The player touted to become one of the defining figures in the tournament never was a match for Argentina's Lionel Messi in Saturday's quarterfinal match, and never an inspiring leader to his team.

While Messi left the pitch his fists shaking in celebration and encouraging the tens of thousands of Argentina fans after the 1-0 win, Hazard stood with hands to his side, forlorn and alone. When the two players were supposed to be in a league all of their own on Saturday, there was simply no comparison.

Substituted in the closing stages of the match, when Belgium usually reaches its creative peak against tiring defenses, Hazard's exit showed that even his staunchest supporter, coach Marc Wilmots, had finally given up hope.

''We were unlucky. In the final 15 meters it was tough to find someone. There was not enough movement,'' Hazard said. However, many thought Hazard would be enough of a threat to draw defenders away from the Belgium forwards - and so give his teammates that chance to move more freely.

Then again, the Chelsea playmaker had rarely showed any positive emotions during the tournament and four victories for Belgium.

On Saturday, his most remarkable move was a high tackle over the ball, with his studs showing, that clattered onto the shin of Lucas Biglia. He was lucky to escape with only a yellow card.

After a lackluster preparation campaign for the World Cup, there was a brief flourish during the group stage when he provided two decisive assists in the first two games. Beyond those few moves, though, he was hardly remarkable in either match.

Right until the last 15 minutes of Saturday's game, Wilmots kept faith in Hazard - expecting that he would finally produce the goods, as he does at Chelsea and used to do at Lille before that, winning young player of the season titles in the English and French leagues.

With credentials like those, Wilmots kept hoping that Hazard would make a bigger impact. It never happened.

At 23, surrounded by players who are even younger, Hazard believes it's just a question of needing more time.

''We are a very young team,'' he said. ''Now we have to learn what we don't do that well, and apply it again against other big teams,'' he said.

Yet as Saturday's 1-0 defeat showed, this was another World Cup match where one individual flash of magic could have made the difference. Messi was able to produce several of them in Argentina's first four games.

Even when Belgium had possession, right up to the penalty box, the players seemed to run out of ideas. It was not only a tribute to Argentina's best defensive display so far, but also to Belgium's lack of inspiration.

''We lacked experience and had to be calmer in front of goal,'' central defender Daniel van Buyten said.

As one of the youngest teams at the World Cup, Belgium, and Hazard, can now start looking ahead to the European Championship in 2016. Hosted by neighboring France, the Belgium fans who made it all the way to Brazil will be expecting more from their team.

And its best player.


Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert

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