Gupta: Eden Hazard outshines Neymar in battle of No. 10s
Four years ago, almost to the day, Brazil beat Colombia in a World Cup quarter-final that would end with Neymar suffering a serious back injury. At the time -- the minutes and hours after the tackle by Juan Zuniga -- there was speculation about whether he would ever play again. He didn't play the next match, of course -- the 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the semi-final in Belo Horizonte.
Neymar's bad luck with World Cup quarters continued today with defeat by Belgium; he huffed and puffed, he even rolled over a couple of times but he could not blow down the Belgian defence and he couldn't beat Thibaut Courtois.
The day after that Brazil-Colombia match in 2014, Belgium played their quarter-final, against Argentina. Eight of the team that started today in Kazan started in Brasilia; among them was Eden Hazard. He couldn't fashion a win that day but today he bossed the show to take his team to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 32 years.
Two Number 10s, two leaders -- one officially captain, one the star player; today, their stories couldn't have been more different. Hazard led Belgium from the front; he had no goals and no assists but his work rate, his incisive movement and the threat he posed -- especially when teaming up with Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku -- kept Brazil far more cautious even when they were chasing the game. One slalom through Brazil's midfield, around the 18th minute, had the grace and smoothness of a champion skier as he dodged tackles and still kept the ball, as though glued to his right foot, at high speed.
And when Brazil upped their game in the second half, Hazard was the first line of Belgium's defence, whether holding the ball or running with it or carving out an area for himself to receive it.
Hazard spent the past domestic season in the shadow of de Bruyne, the star of Manchester City's phenomenal title-winning campaign. Yet, wearing the captain's armband, he has found an extra gear here in Russia; his performance against Tunisia in the group stage, where he scored two goals, was the personal highlight of this tournament. Until today.
For Neymar, this was a lot of effort for no gain. He had two penalty appeals turned down, and, with almost the last kick of the match, a shot bound for goal that needed all of Courtois's height -- and skill -- to tip over the bar. He worked hard, often going deep into his own half to pick up the ball and drive it forward. But it was not to be.
This was supposed to be Neymar's breakthrough season, the one that made him a superstar equal to Messi and Ronaldo. It's what he had switched clubs for, trading the security of a Barcelona jersey for the gamble of Paris Saint-Germain, believing that if he was ever to be the World Player of the Year, he'd have to do it away from the Nou Camp. Ironically, this is the first year in a decade that neither Messi nor Ronaldo looks to be the top choice for that award. Now, after today, it won't be Neymar either. He leaves this tournament with his reputation neither enhanced nor seriously impacted, though his reputation for diving and drama have won him few new fans.
This is a story not just about Number 10s but about Brazil's Number 12 -- their fans in the stands. Brazil's second-half fightback came after sustained cheering and chanting by their sizeable fan contingent at Kazan Arena. The chants started in the 50th minute, sparking Brazil into some sort of life. The first sign of that was Marcelo's cross that Roberto Firmino almost poked home. There was another Marcelo run a few minutes later and then the first of Neymar's penalty appeals. That sustained pressure eventually led to Brazil's goal and they raised their game, winning the balls and passing more accurately.
And so to St Petersburg, where on Tuesday Belgium's Number 10 will face France's Number 10 Kylian Mbappe, one of the most exciting talents of the past couple of years. Brazil, the team that made 10 an iconic football number, go home; Neymar will set his sights on Qatar 2022, when at 30 he will have one last shot at the World Cup. It's a long way from the tackle by Zuniga -- but it's not yet a completed journey.