Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.
With the World Cup down to the final eight sides, we can look back on three fantastic weeks which haven’t been matched at a major tournament in at least a decade. However, with just eight more matches to play, time is running out for a true standout player to emerge.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are already heading home, while over half of the remaining eight sides have made it this far based on collective displays. Neymar is more likely to lift a Golden Globe for his acting displays than anything else, while Golden Ball favourite Kylian Mbappe has impressed once; against a dodgy Argentina defence.
English fans will be demanding Harry Kane gets recognition, but his likely Golden Boot success should be reward enough. The Spurs man has been a huge factor for England, but his actual input during games has been little aside from his goals.
Overall, it’s not been a World Cup for individuals. However, we’d make the case that Eden Hazard – the 14/1 sixth favourite – is the obvious contender for the Golden Ball at Russia this summer. The Chelsea man had plenty of expectation on his shoulders ahead of the tournament, which he’s managed to meet. Ahead of their quarter-final clash, we’re making the case for Belgium’s number 10 as the tournament’s best player.
Also See: Belgium Claim Crucial Japan Victory
The Numbers so Far
Hazard has been involved in four goals in his three matches in Russia so far. He’s scored twice, and provided two assists, the latest of which came in their comeback against Japan in the second round. The Belgium captain teed up Marouane Fellaini’s equaliser, after which the Blue Samurai seemed to crumble, allowing the Red Devils to complete a remarkable comeback.
Two assists is the current highest total in Russia, shared between plenty of players. However, none of those have managed to rack up two goals on top of that, like Hazard has. The Belgian has been a consistent goal threat for his team, with five shots on target, the highest of any player in the Red Devils’ squad. Being the creative hub for the highest scoring side at the World Cup is certainly impressive.
Hazard has the second highest number of dribbles per game of any player left in Russia. While Neymar leads the way, the Brazilian has considerably more failed dribble attempts compared to the Belgian, who has managed to be much more of a creative influence than the Brazilian.
Hazard Stepping up as Captain
The Belgian has been a great influence over his side so far this summer, relishing his role as captain. He’s led his side through a perfect tournament so far, racking up four victories from four. The Chelsea man has cracked the whip during that run, and he’s not been afraid to admit it.
The opening game saw Hazard stepping up to the plate as captain, calling out the, “missing”, Romelu Lukaku during the clash with Panama. The striker followed up with four goals in the next 90 minutes of football, so the chat quite clearly had some effect. Since the incident, Hazard has had to consistently defend himself, but he’s shouldered the responsibility, much to Roberto Martinez’s delight.
The Spaniard was clear in his praise, backing his decisive leader and the football he inspires:
His level of the play has been the highest, he’s been decisive in attack, a leader in what the group needs to achieve. We are a team and in international football that [being a team] is difficult. He’s played a massive part as captain of this group. You see a lot of the captain through the team. When you see Hazard enjoying his football, he makes it a beautiful sport, he puts a smile on the face.
Free Flowing Belgium
At a tournament which has been packed with Entertainment, Belgium’s 12 goals in four games stand out. They have been the most impressive side going forward, and that’s as a result of Hazard’s displays. The team is built to get the most of him out on the left-flank, and he’s been at the centre of their impressive displays so far.
Hazard’s success in Russia comes in spite of a long-running issue in Belgian football. Their version of the Gerrard/Lampard dilemma is Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, who tripped each other up game after game for the Red Devils. It was Martinez who first moved De Bruyne deep in midfield – not Pep Guardiola. Since then, Hazard has been able to roam from attacking midfield, creating and scoring goals in a side where De Bruyne dictates the play.
Neymar Showdown is Key
Should Hazard win the battle of the number 10s on Friday night, then he’s going to be the clear favourite for the Golden Ball. A lot will come down to their biggest clash of the tournament, but this is where Hazard can truly shine. The forward has a chance to terrorise the Brazil defence, and we believe he’ll impress during their quarter-final.
The forward already has Neymar beaten in one area; fouls. Hazard has taken 14 fouls during four games in Russia, as he’s been a clear target for some physical sides. The Chelsea man has dealt with those by shrugging them off and getting on with it, something Neymar can’t exactly claim. In terms of attitude, Hazard is streets ahead.
The previous five winners of the Golden Ball have all failed to win the tournament, so Hazard has a chance regardless of the Brazil result. In a tournament where individuals haven’t really stepped up, it’s hard to see many players who deserve the award more. Of course, carrying Belgium into the final would all but secure the award for Hazard, after an exceptional start.
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