Eden Hazard poised to start on bench for Belgium

Belgium midfielder Eden Hazard arrives at training yesterday as the Group A leaders prepare to host Serbia tonight. Picture: AFP/Getty
Belgium midfielder Eden Hazard arrives at training yesterday as the Group A leaders prepare to host Serbia tonight. Picture: AFP/Getty
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EDEN Hazard has almost fully recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out of Chelsea’s Europa League triumph but is likely to start on the bench for Belgium in their key World Cup qualifier against Serbia tonight.

Hazard also missed Belgium’s 4-2 win over the United States in Cleveland last week but has been in full training ahead of the Serbia match in Brussels.

“I have done everything to get fit but I won’t be at 100 per cent. I’m not yet pain free, there is still some irritation,” he told a news conference in Genk yesterday.

Hazard was injured against Aston Villa in early May and missed the Europa League final win over Benfica in Amsterdam.

“I will not take any unnecessary risks. The match against Serbia is important but to be fit for the start of pre-season training at Chelsea is also,” he said.

“The last thing I want is to return from holiday with an injury. If I don’t feel I’m ready to play I will be honest with the national team coach.”

Belgian newspapers reported that manager Marc Wilmots might use Hazard as an impact player off the bench. “That is an option, but it’s the coach’s choice,” the midfielder said.

“There is a good chance that a decision on my availability will only be made on field during the warm-up. This is the first time I’ve been sidelined this long with an injury but that is part of a football career.”

Hazard was also asked about the arrival of Jose Mourinho as the new Chelsea manager.

“I’ll be a little intimidated at the first training but in the end Mourinho is human like the rest of us,” he said. “He has come to win trophies and that’s my ambition, too.”

Much-fancied Belgium have not qualified for a major tournament in more than a decade, but lead European World Cup qualifying group A, albeit only on goal difference from Croatia. The Belgians have 14 more points than bottom-placed Scotland and Serbian coach Sinisa Mihajlovic has said that he believes tonight’s opponents are among the three strongest football nations in Europe.

The Belgian camp is certainly not short of confidence after an impressive 4-2 friendly victory over the United States last week and the squad have been kept busy this week taking questions about possible club transfers and Mihajlovic’s comment.

“Individually, only Germany and Spain are better than us,” was the view of defender Jan Vertonghen. Wilmots sought to downplay comparisons, saying Croatia, fourth in Fifa’s rankings, could say the same thing, with Belgium only 15th. “Having ambition is good. Germany and Italy go to every World Cup with the goal of reaching the final. That’s the right spirit,” he said.

Serbia’s hopes of causing an upset – and maintaining their very slim hopes of qualification – have been dented by the absence of several key players through injury and suspension. Winger Zoran Tosic has a broken foot, forward Filip Djuricic is out with a fractured rib, midfielder Milos Ninkovic pulled out with a muscle injury and versatile Manchester City defender Matija Nastasic is suspended.

Mihajlovic will be tempted to start uncapped striker Aleksandar Mitrovic after the 18-year-old’s impressive form at Partizan Belgrade, where he scored 15 goals in his first professional season to help the Serbian champions to a record sixth successive league title.