ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the leading attractions at the World Cup, but now that they have been sent packing, Belgian Eden Hazard believes it might be his time to shine on the biggest stage.
Both players have won the Ballon d’Or, football’s biggest individual prize, every year between themselves since 2008 - five each. However, Messi’s Argentina lost 4-3 to France and Ronaldo’s Portugal were beaten 2-1 by Uruguay in the last 16 on Saturday.
It leaves room for others to grab some of the limelight, which France’s Kylian Mbappe did in style in Kazan by outshining Messi.
Four years ago, Hazard’s then manager at Chelsea Jose Mourinho said: “Ronaldo and Messi are Ronaldo and Messi. Eden Hazard is probably the best young player in the world with legs to go there, but give him time.”
Hazard, 27, has so far, however, disappointed in major tournaments.
At the 2014 World Cup, Belgium reached the quarter-finals, losing to eventual runners-up Argentina, but Hazard was a pale shadow of his brilliant club self.
Two years later, they progressed to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals but were surprisingly knocked out by Wales with Hazard unable to run riot.
“I hope (I can shine). Ronaldo and Messi are not in the World Cup anymore so now it’s time to shine,” Hazard told a news conference on Sunday ahead of their last 16 tie against Japan at the Rostov Arena on Monday.
“I just want to go through to the quarters and the semis.”
Belgium are now more experienced and his partnership with Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens has proved efficient, with the Red Devils scoring nine goals in their first three matches.
“All three of us have reached their best level since we started playing football,” said Hazard, who only has one concern.
Should they go through against Japan, Belgium will have to wait four days before their quarter-final match, and they also had four days before their last 16 encounter.
“I don’t like to have too many days off between games,” he said.
“When I cut for too long, then I’m less match-ready.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge