LYON, France — Few players are as eager for the European Championship to start as Belgium forward Eden Hazard.
The talented 25-year-old Hazard is in need of an uplifting performance after a puzzlingly poor season for Chelsea. Especially with future club coach Antonio Conte in the opposing dugout plotting schemes to defend him when Belgium take on Italy in their Euro 2016 group stage opener on Monday.
“I just can’t wait for tomorrow to come around so I can begin this tournament,” Hazard said Sunday. “I am very happy I can play against my future manager. I hope I can show him everything I am capable of next season.”
Last season, Hazard earned the Player of the Year award in England after leading Chelsea to the Premier League title with 14 goals and nine assists.
More of his magic was expected in London for a follow-up campaign. Instead, Hazard’s form dipped dramatically. He mustered only four goals with a late-season scoring streak to go with three assists. As he went, so did his team. Chelsea slumped to a 10th-place finish last month, a full 31 points behind surprise champion Leicester.
A strong start now to boost his nation’s bid for a long-coveted title would do wonders for Hazard’s reputation as one of the top playmakers in Europe.
“Perhaps the first match is the most important of the competition,” Hazard said. “It will see whether we have confidence or not.”
Fortunately, for both him and Belgium, Hazard did show signs he was recovering his form late in the season.
And throughout Belgium’s qualification, he maintained a leading role, alongside Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. The pair scored five goals each as Belgium won its group and rose to the top of FIFA world rankings for the first time last year.
Largely thanks to Hazard and De Bruyne, Belgium enters Euro 2016 ranked second in the world behind Argentina and as one of the favorites to win the title.
“On the pitch we really try to link up,” Hazard said about De Bruyne. “We are players who can make the difference. If it is not my day, it can be his.
“This is the moment that everyone in Belgium has been waiting for. The whole ‘golden generation’ is really waiting for it. There are a lot of people who believe we can achieve something great.”
But making a fresh start Monday at Stade de Lyon will rest on Hazard and company undoing Italy’s vaunted defense.
Under Conte’s strict discipline, Italy went undefeated through all 10 qualifiers.
And Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s 38-year-old goalkeeper, has promised he will keep his steely gaze on Hazard, calling him Belgium’s biggest weapon.
“He is one of the very few players on the continent that can have an impact and turn the game,” Buffon said. “He has innate ability and, for both Belgium and Chelsea, he is considered the chief threat because with one piece of play he can win the match.”
Belgium did top Italy the last time they met in November, when De Bruyne scored one goal and set up another to guide Belgium’s 3-1 comeback victory.
That friendly match also hints that Belgium coach Marc Wilmots may not have to fret about how to replace center back Vincent Kompany, who missed that first encounter with Italy also because of injury.
This time around, Belgium will no doubt win more possession against a depleted Italian side that is without injured midfielders Marco Verrati and Claudio Marchisio and the aging Andrea Pirlo, who is not in the squad.
But with Buffon between the posts and Conte focused on defense, the challenge for Hazard and his team will be converting that possession into goals.