Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne embody the best and worst of Belgium in vital win over Romania

Belgium 2-0 Romania: Lukaku’s assist and De Bruyne’s goal sealed a necessary victory for the Red Devils

Alex Pattle
in Cologne
Sunday 23 June 2024 01:43 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Romelu Lukaku stood with his back not only to goal, but to the raucous mass of crimson behind it. From somewhere within that throng, a plume of red smoke billowed towards the roof of the stadium. It might as well have been a warning to Romania, but just one minute into this critical Euro 2024 clash, they did not have time to heed it.

Lukaku, so often maligned for his endeavours with Belgium, executed his hold-up to perfection, fending off Andrei Burca and cushioning the ball into the stride of Youri Tielemans. The midfielder did the rest, driving the ball low and hard past Florin Nita.

So much of the last decade must have felt like a footballing nightmare for Belgium, but here was a dream start in Cologne. After the start of the week brought great concern for Domenico Tedesco’s side, with a (supposedly) shocking 1-0 loss to Slovakia, the end of the week at least brought hope. Following this 2-0 win for Belgium, all four teams in Group E possess three points. Belgium are top on goal difference.

They still look a collection of talented individuals, rather than a bonded team. That issue has been so chronic over the last decade that it almost feels lazy to highlight, but it is true and remains the biggest barrier to Belgian success. That this problem has persisted under numerous managers, afflicting a golden generation and what remains of it, is as fascinating as it is frustrating. At times on Saturday, it even looked as though there were only 10 Belgians on the pitch. Ultimately, though, their problems manifested in minor mistakes, rather than anything crippling.

At first there were passes without recipients, calls without answers. On the wings, Jeremy Doku and Dodi Lukebakio made the wrong decisions more than once, dribbling when they should have passed. Kevin De Bruyne, so talismanic for Manchester City, was guilty of unusually poor execution at times, such as with one deep free-kick that sailed beyond the byline – far from any teammate. Yet one better delivery from the midfielder, a corner, drifted over Romanian heads and seemed to land perfectly for Lukaku, only for the ill-prepared striker to watch dumbfounded as it almost bounced off his boot.

Youri Tielemans celebrates scoring Belgium’s opener against Romania
Youri Tielemans celebrates scoring Belgium’s opener against Romania (AFP)

But when Belgium are in sync, they can be scintillating, and they showed that side of themselves in Cologne as well.

Doku and Lukebakio, for their occasional errors of judgement, typified that excitement, and De Bruyne is – on paper – the perfect midfielder to feed them. When he and his compatriots find spaces between and beyond opposition players, to pass or gallop into, they are enthralling. And Lukaku is still capable of delivering in big moments, as shown by his assist.

Yes, the goals that he desires – and which fans desire for him – have been lacking. His two disallowed equalisers against Slovakia were down to poor timing and bad luck respectively, and he also failed to convert a slew of other decent chances. Here, he thought he had found catharsis in a fine second-half finish, and the subsequent embrace of his teammates. But that catharsis quickly drowned in a collective Romanian roar; Lukaku had been... you know what’s coming. Offside.

Yet, in truth, he had largely performed well up to that point, and he performed ably thereafter. At one point, with his back to goal once more, his hold-up play was as impressive as it was for his assist. And his finish was only thwarted by Nicusor Bancu’s crucial, sliding block – a pure piece of footballing patriotism.

Kevin De Bruyne eventually scored Belgium’s second goal of the night
Kevin De Bruyne eventually scored Belgium’s second goal of the night (Getty Images)

That description could also apply to Nita's numerous saves, which kept Romania in touch on Saturday. One such stop saw the goalkeeper propel himself across goal to palm away a curving effort from Lukebakio, who had been set up after De Bruyne produced a nutmeg, glided towards the box, and laid the ball off to the winger.

Belgian keeper Koen Casteels was also dramatically called to duty, not long after his side’s opener, leaping upwards with an outstretched glove to tip Radu Dragusin’s close-range header over the bar. It was a magnificent save, equal to the quality of the initial cross: a nasty delivery from Marius Marin.

Casteels saved Belgium again on 67 minutes, in the wake of the Romanian reprieve of Lukaku’s offside. The underdogs, who stunned Ukraine 3-0 in their Euros opener, should have been level.

At the other end of the pitch, De Bruyne’s finishing was poor, as he sent two efforts well off-target and drew a comfortable save from Nita with another. He also failed to find Doku at the back post in one disappointing moment, which would not have occurred if either man was wearing his Man City jersey, surely.

Romelu Lukaku embraces De Bruyne in Cologne
Romelu Lukaku embraces De Bruyne in Cologne (AP)

But by the end, the Belgian fans were singing De Bruyne’s name, as he finally located the back of the net. He did so at a crucial juncture, with 10 minutes left on the clock, stretching to stab the ball into the bottom corner. So used to conjuring beautiful assists himself, De Bruyne was in fact set up by a terrific long ball from his goalkeeper.

More chances came and went for both teams, but the score had been settled: 2-0 to Belgium. For better and worse, they were thrilling here, and their own best and worst was embodied by De Bruyne and Lukaku.

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