By Associated Press
BRUSSELS: Will Eden Hazard’s lack of playing time at Real Madrid drag down Belgium at the World Cup?
This is the question all Belgium fans are asking, and they will get an idea of the answer when their team take on Wales and the Netherlands in the Nations League this week.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez called up the playmaker for the pair of games and said he wants to see him on the pitch, something that has too rarely happened at Madrid.
Since he joined Real Madrid from Chelsea in 2019, the 31-year-old Hazard has been struggling with injuries, including a broken right foot during his first season that had a lingering effect.
This season, he’s stayed on the bench in four matches and has played a meager total of 158 minutes.
After Hazard delivered a scintillating display in a 3-0 win against Celtic this month — including his first Champions League goal since November 2020 — many observers thought the performance would kickstart his season.
But Hazard was replaced after an hour in Madrid’s next Liga match, and has not featured since.
Another source of worry for Belgium is that Hazard has become a Madrid replacement for striker Karim Benzema, with coach Carlo Ancelotti using him in a fake No. 9 role.
Asked by RTL about Hazard’s positioning with his club, Martinez made clear it is not an option for Belgium.
“We have a better team when we have got a fixed No. 9, and Eden using the spaces around him,” Martinez said.
Hazard’s difficulties with Madrid have already affected his performances with the national team. In four Nations League games this year, Hazard has provided only one assist and was replaced after 45 minutes in June in the 4-1 home loss to the Netherlands. And the last time Hazard played a full game in a Belgium shirt was more than a year ago at the European Championship against Finland in June 2021.
Not so great for a player with 120 international appearances, the emblematic figure of Belgium over the past 10 years, whose ambition is to guide his teammates to the World Cup title.
In Qatar, Belgium will play at its third straight World Cup. It will likely be the final chance for the country’s “golden generation” of players to win the major title it craves following repeated failures in recent years. Belgium made it to the semifinals at the 2018 World Cup and was eliminated in the quarterfinals by eventual winner Italy at last year’s European Championship.
But despite all the doubts surrounding Hazard, Martinez has faith in the former Chelsea star.
“Eden is in a happy place, he is ready to perform, and I have no worries,” he said.
Martinez conceded he was “very concerned” when Hazard had to play with pain before his latest ankle surgery and could not move freely on the pitch.
“The new surgery gave him a new way of feeling,” he said. “The lack of minutes don’t really worry me in terms of his level. My worry is how many games can I play a player that does not have those match minutes, and that’s what we need to measure.”
Lagging three points behind the Netherlands in their group, Belgium plays Wales on Thursday and the Netherlands three days later in Amsterdam. The group also includes Poland.
Belgium will be without striker Romelu Lukaku, who remains sidelined by a thigh injury.