BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - Eden Hazard stole the show as Belgium crushed Hungary 4-0 in the second round at Euro 2016 but their quarter-final opponents Wales cannot afford to ignore midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who is emerging as their key player.
De Bruyne bears a resemblance to his cartoon fellow-countryman Tintin, with his red hair, quiff and schoolboy face. He also shares his boundless enthusiasm and craftiness. Belgian fans call him “the Ginger Pele”.
Industrious and creative, he has bounced back from injury last season with Manchester City, and after a disappointing performance in Belgium’s opening match — a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Italy — he has been at the heart of the side’s drive.
De Bruyne was hugely influential in the victory over Hungary, setting the tone of the game in the first 30 minutes. He fired in seven shots, five on target, including one that hit the crossbar.
He made 40 passes and delivered a perfect free-kick for Toby Alderweireld to head in Belgium’s opening goal after just 10 minutes. He demanded the ball from his colleagues and seemed always hungry to instigate attacks.
That performance was somewhat overshadowed by Hazard’s, which included a stunning individual goal. But coach Marc Wilmots was careful to praise him too in the post-match news conference.
Having criticised him after the Italy game for not tracking back, Wilmots said: “I have to say, Kevin De Bruyne...every time he lost the ball he made the effort to come back, and that’s what makes the side strong.”
There had been some speculation that De Bruyne, who turned 25 on Tuesday, might be dropped after the opener but Wilmots kept the faith and was rewarded.
He was instrumental in the 3-0 victory over Ireland, setting up one goal and winning the man-of-the-match award. He took the accolade again in the 1-0 win over Sweden and even headed off the line.
“Kevin is laughing again,” Wilmots said after the Sweden game. “He’s enjoying his football in spite of everything he’s been through.”
The reference was in part to a two-month lay-off after sustaining an injury to his right knee in a Premier League game against Bournemouth in January.
Despite the injury, De Bruyne had a good first season for Manchester City, which he joined from Wolfsburg for a club record 55 million pounds ($74.04 million) in August 2015 after being named Footballer-of-the-Year in Germany.
In doing so, he shrugged off the memory of an earlier spell at Chelsea when he had been eclipsed by Hazard.
De Bruyne had moved to Chelsea in 2012 but, while Hazard was winning awards, he struggled to get games. Chelsea’s then coach, Jose Mourinho, eventually let him go.
Former Belgium goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff is among the commentators who believe that it may be De Bruyne who inspires the “Golden Generation” to realise their potential and shrug off the notion that they are underachievers.
“Of the Belgium players, De Bruyne is the best,” Pfaff said. “He works hard, he has more ideas. He can play the left side, the right side, the inside. He plays more for the team.
“He thinks about what others are doing. He has lots of ideas. He moves the ball around well.”
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Reporting by Angus MacSwan. Editing by Adrian Warner.