Hazard flops, but hope for Belgium
The sight of Eden Hazard traipsing from the pitch in the 75th minute of Belgium's World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina symbolised the shattered hopes of his country's 'golden generation'.
Belgium arrived in Brazil tipped as dark horses to win the tournament, but despite three narrow group-stage wins and a hard-fought victory over the United States in the last 16, they came up short against Argentina on Saturday.
Forced to chase the game by Gonzalo Higuain's eighth-minute opener, the best Belgium could offer in response was headers from Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini that both missed the target.
Nowhere was the lack of inspiration so conspicuous as in the performance of chief creator Hazard, who made way for Nacer Chadli despite Belgium being in desperate need of an equaliser.
While fellow number 10 Lionel Messi dazzled, Hazard did not manage a single attempt at goal and won only one free-kick, his frustration telling in an ugly foul on Lucas Biglia for which he was booked.
Coach Marc Wilmots said the decision to replace Hazard had been purely tactical, as Belgium looked to mount an aerial bombardment of the Argentine box in the closing stages.
But for a player who scored 17 times for Chelsea last season, and who has been described by club manager Jose Mourinho as one of the best young players in the world, it was a humiliating end.
The 23-year-old finished the tournament with no goals and two assists to his name, and he gave a frank assessment of his performance against Argentina.
"I think I could have done better," Hazard told reporters at Brasilia's Mane Garrincha National Stadium.
"I think the team was expecting more, although I was decisive in the group phase. In terms of quality, I could have done better."
For Hazard, the explanation for Belgium's last-eight exit was simple. "The thing we're missing is called experience."
- 'Hold our heads high' -
With an average age of 25 years and 11 months, Belgium's squad was the third-youngest in Brazil and they should be a stronger prospect at the 2016 European Championship in France.
Of the current squad, only 36-year-old centre-back Daniel Van Buyten is unlikely to be around in two years.
Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne will be 25 and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois 24, while Divock Origi (currently 19), Adnan Januzaj (19) and Romelu Lukaku (21) will add two more years of top-level football.
"Overall, when we look behind us at the tournament, we can hold our heads high," said Courtois.
"We had a good tournament. We showed we were a good team. In two years' time at the Euro, we'll be two years older, we'll have two years' extra experience, and we might be able to do something."
Drawn alongside Bosnia-Hercegovina, Israel, Wales, Cyprus and Andorra in qualifying for Euro 2016, Marc Wilmots' side should have few problems booking a ticket to France.
Captain Vincent Kompany, however, is already looking even further ahead.
"We played with heart and in four years, I think it's a match that we'll win," said the Manchester City centre-back, in reference to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
"The Argentines will tell you, it wasn't easy for them. The number of youngsters aged 19, 20, 21, 22 or 23 that we played with is frightening, to be honest.
"But it opens up new perspectives. These young players will arrive at the Euro or the World Cup with experience you can't buy."
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