TOULOUSE: Eden Hazard, displaying the flair and purpose which abandoned him last season in the Premier League, inspired Belgium to raise their game and, eventually, proceed decisively beyond Hungary in Toulouse and to a quarter-final duel with Wales at Euro 2016.
The Red Devils won 4-0 with three goals in the last 12 minutes after the outsiders from Hungary made them work all the way despite conceding what could have been a morale-wrecking early goal to Toby Alderweireld.
In the closing stages Chelsea winger Hazard laid on goal No2 for newly-arrived substitute Michy Batshuayi and then struck a superb second to climax a devastating counter-attack. Coach Marc Wilmots’s choice of substitutes was further vindicated when Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco ran away to score the fourth goal in the last minute.
This was by far Belgium’s best performance of the finals and helped restore some faith in all the potential they struggled to show in the group stage when they finished as unconvincing runners-up in Group E to Italy.
They took the lead after 10 minutes. Tottenham defender Alderweireld rose at the far post, above even team-mate Romelu Lukaku, to head home a perfectly judged left wing free kick from yet another Premier League player in Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne.
Minutes later De Bruyne might have increased the Red Devils’ lead but but put an angled shot on the right into the sidenet of veteran goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly. Hazard and De Bruyne were off target in subsequent attacks while Dries Maertens twice failed badly in and around the goal area when he had only Kiraly to beat.
The goalkeeper did well to reach a deflecting hand to one of Maertens’s efforts and then he stretched up to tip a hard-driven free kick from De Bruyne against the crossbar.
Hungary, drawing confidence and reassurance from survival, began to push forwards themselves towards the end of the first half. Gergo Lovrencsics saw a drive scrape the top of Thibaud Courtois’s crossbar and Balazs Dzsudzsak fired just wide of Courtois’s left-hand post with the goalkeeper scrambling to cover.
Hazard stepped up his own game at the start of the second half. He saw a shot punched over the bar by Kiraly and Maertens wasted yet another clear chance as the Hungarians went close through Adam Szalai (twice) and Roland Juhasz.
As the Hungarians pressed forward but at the cost of discipline and shape and defensive cover so Belgium picked them off in ruthless fashion.
First Hazard crossed for newly-arrived substitute Batshuayi to tap in from close range then the Chelsea man raced away on his own on a counter-attack before cutting across the face of the penalty area and firing home from square-on to goal.
Carrasco wrapped it all up in the last minute of a victory for which the only Belgian disappointment was a yellow card which means Thomas Vermaelen will miss the quarter-final against Gareth Bales & Co.