Beware the Belgians in blue

by Tom Rhodes

Premier League football is back, and with a bang. The glorious sporting drama that London 2012 had provided these shores in the weeks just prior to the nation’s true love returning had left many sceptical of football’s ability to win back our hearts, with it’s ‘overpaid’ stars in their fancy cars, endless on-field spats and numerous off-field misdemeanours. However, like the loveable rogue it is football won back our hearts in the space of a frantic August weekend, reminding us that the Olympics is merely a summer fling, whereas football is an enduring marriage. And on the theme of wedlock the opening throws of the 2012-2013 Premier League season belonged to something (relatively) old and something new, neither were borrowed but both were in blue.

The first exchanges of the season were dominated by a Belgian tour de force. First up something new, Eden Hazard. After performing a Lebron James-esque public build up and ultimate unveiling of his chosen new employers, the La Louviere born man was swiftly put on self-built pedestal. Yet, fans of Ligue 1, and Lille in particular, will tell you that Hazard was a man more than capable of fulfilling the expectations which come with being a two times winner Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year prizes. Any doubts Chelsea fans had after a rather muted introduction in the Community Shield were soon lay to rest by his Premier League bow. Hazard introduced himself emphatically to the English top flight when inside 3 minutes a sublime turn left Wigan defender Ramis with his tail between his legs before Hazard slid in Branislav Ivanovic for The Blues’ opener.

He continued to cause havoc winning a penalty just four minutes later after more neat skill. Nevertheless, what was most impressive about Hazard’s performance was not actually the guile and intricate footwork he displayed in abundance, that was almost expected, instead it was his instant adaptation to the rigours of English football. Hazard was repeatedly handed out heavy treatment from the home side but just continued to dust himself down, get up and make them look foolish once again. It is an enduring sentiment, almost cliché now, that foreign players need to be given time to adapt to the physical and frenetic style of the English game. Who can forget Dennis Bergkamp’s arduous first season, or curiously the man-mountain that was Didier Drogba shying away from the physical demands of his new surroundings in his first term at Stamford Bridge.

It makes Hazard’s introduction all the more impressive and it was to get even better in front of his new supporters. The 21 year-old showed what once again, what will no doubt soon be regarded as hall mark, flashes of fast thinking and skilful play chipping in with three assists in the process. His final assist was in many ways most noteworthy. With keeper Federici out of his goal Hazard surged up field with the ball towards the Reading goal. With just a hapless defender between him and his first Premier League goal Hazard instead chose to provide a second goal in four days for Ivanovic. It highlighted three invaluable traits, an inherent unselfishness, belief in team ethos and an unnerving streak of confidence. He could have just as easily notched that all-important first goal but with an air of “I’ll score when I want,” he was happy to supply his team-mate with the glory. They are characteristics which are generating excitable comparisons with the great Gianfranco Zola and which should serve as a stark warning to future opponents.

While Hazard was enjoying his honeymoon period in West london, his compatriot Marouane Fellaini was celebrating the fourth anniversary of his marriage on Merseyside with the Toffee’s in serious style. Everton are notoriously slow starters and an opening game against a wounded Manchester United looked ominous. But Sir Alex probably hadn’t counted on the irresistible performance that the Merseyside Afro-man was about to produce. Fellaini was simply unplayable, with echoes of Drogba in his prime, taking the ball effortlessly however it was fired at him; head, neck, chest, thigh, foot he brought the ball into his thrall on every occasion or alternatively laid it neatly to a blue shirt. And, bullying Michael Carrick into submission in the process, eventually towering over him to deservedly head in his side’s winner.

Ferguson, in typically understated fashion when referring to the opposition strength’s labelled the Moroccan born midfielder a “handful” and crudely belittled Everton’s tactics as purely lumping it up to this unmanageable magnet, obviously more to deflect criticism away from his own side rather than a sound assessment. Fellaini was much more subtle and holistic in his work than that, he provided creativity as well as an outlet for his side, often dropping in between United’s defensive and midfield lines to link up with Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman. Not to mention an incredible work rate not allowing the deep lying Paul Scholes time to dictate affairs. In fact he probably left his opposition manager with a bitter reminder of the kind of physical driving force his own side still lack.

These two Belgians in blue are shining stars in what is undoubtedly a golden generation of players for their country. It was a Belgian, Vincent Kompany, who lifted the Premier League trophy last season not to mention being an exemplary defensive stalwart in his side’s glorious campaign. Arsenal too, have now looked to a Belgian to lead them on the pitch. A 4-2 victory over bitter rivals Netherlands in the derby of the low countries was a significant statement ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign. But amongst qualifying for Brazil 2014 there is much Premier League action to be played and fans of Everton and Chelsea will be hoping like this nation’s love of football, their Belgian stars contribution will be unwavering despite a few distractions.

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