Romelu Lukaku has been a man on a mission at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, tearing apart defences and the stigmas around him with vengeance.
The FIFA World Cup is known to change careers, often for the good. Young players emerge as superstars before earning moves to the big leagues. But, there are several established stars that use the tournament to prove a point and set the record straight. Romelu Lukaku is one such player.
Lukaku was coming to the 2018 FIFA World Cup on the back of a decent debut season with Manchester United. But, the 2017-18 campaign, and some of the ones preceding it have also bore witness to rampant criticism of the player and the major pitfalls in his game.
Poor hold-up play, low intelligence, small team bully et al. While Lukaku had gone a long way in dispelling a lot of doubts surrounding him in his maiden campaign with Manchester United, the skeptics still remained.
After all, the 25-year-old was going to spearhead Belgium’s much talked about “Golden Generation” that was presented with a golden opportunity to win the World Cup. And boy, has he proven his detractors wrong thus far in Russia.
Lukaku opened his campaign with a goal glut, scoring a brace each against Tunisia and Panama, with four shots on target. The clinical side to his game was starting to come to the fore. But, that was just the tip of the iceberg in those two colossal performances.
There were sprints that left defenders gasping for breath. There were deft touches that would eventually embarrass those trying to stop him. Most importantly, Lukaku had become a captain without even donning the armband, with his team talks already a stuff of legends.
Since the group stage, Lukaku has not managed to find the back of the net. But, he has certainly made his mark, demonstrating a number of skills which have seen him become a complete striker. Against Japan, Lukaku didn’t really have the best of outings. However, he still will have the game’s best moment credited to him. Cut to scene.
It’s deep into injury time in Rostov, with the game evenly poised after Belgium’s two goals. A few more moments and the referee would blow for the end of regulation time. But, it wasn’t to be for Japan. As Thibaut Courtois safely collected the ball from a corner kick, he spotted an already running Kevin De Bruyne, and the counter-attack was underway.
The playmaker located Thomas Meunier on the right flank and Belgium were proceeding to overload the Japan box. Meunier spotted Lukaku in a strong position to score. But, he wouldn’t. Instead, the striker dummied the ball for Nacer Chadli, who was unmarked and made no mistake to score what is one of the momentous goals in Belgian football history.
A closer look at Lukaku would serve to remind just how intelligent a move it was on his part. His movement drew not just Makoto Hasebe close to him, but the rest of the defensive line as well, which left Chadli without anyone marking him. We all know how it all ended by now.
That moment alone shows the kind of self awareness the Belgian No. 9 possesses. But, Lukaku wasn’t done showing off just yet. Against Brazil, the 25-year-old had a slightly different role than the previous three outings. Lukaku would torment defenders just the same though.
Against Brazil, he was deployed in a slightly withdrawn role on the right, which allowed Kevin De Bruyne get further forward in and around the Brazil box in central spaces. But, Lukaku went on to stretch the defensive line with aplomb, with his power and intelligent movement on and off the ball. The striker never stopped running until the full-time whistle.
In possibly the biggest game of his life, Lukaku was unplayable for the most part. Marcelo and Miranda were bullied throughout by his driving runs. There was a touch of finesse as well, with flicks and tricks aplenty. The most beautiful of the lot though, was the pass that led to De Bruyne’s winner, after a marauding run in the middle of the park – a touch of class to say the least.
— Utd (@SimplyUtd) July 6, 2018
A lot of the credit should also go to Lukaku’s idol, mentor and friend in the Belgian squad. Working alongside Roberto Martinez’s assistant, Thierry Henry for the last two years seems to have made a telling impact, one that Lukaku himself has alluded to.
But, some things come naturally to some players, those being intelligence and leadership in Lukaku’s case – two qualities that remain grossly underrated by fans and pundits alike. But, as the striker goes about showing exactly what he’s made of, there’s no denying his brilliance.
At 25, he could just be getting started, which should make Manchester United fans excited as well. For now, Lukaku continues growing into the tournament in dramatic and emphatic fashion. Who knows, he may yet win it in two games’ time. Up next, France. Henry’s countrymen better be ready for the Romelu Lukaku show.