There are some people who still doubt Romelu Lukaku. The 28-year-old will lead the line tonight for Belgium against Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals in Munich’s Allianz Arena. The Azzurri defenders who faced the Inter Milan striker in Serie A are not among the sceptics.
Certain criticisms lingered throughout the forward’s career in England. At Chelsea they thought his movement could be improved and he did not use his physical strength well enough. Some Everton supporters believed he was lazy and his first touch was poor. Things did not work out at Old Trafford, either, and Manchester United fans still say that Lukaku failed to turn up for big games.
Two seasons in Italy and his performances in this tournament show how wrong the naysayers have been. He was just 18 when he moved to Stamford Bridge and faced all the questions that young players arriving at a big club need to answer. It took Lukaku a while to learn how to use his body at the highest level and his mobility needed work. Chelsea was not the ideal place for a teenager to gain experience a decade ago and loaning Lukaku to West Bromwich Albion and then Everton was a sensible option. They would now like to have him back in west London.
If ever a place failed to appreciate what it had it was Goodision Park. Lukaku sometimes looks clumsy and it is easy to be fooled by the aesthetics. There are better stylists in the game and some of the denizens of the ‘School of Science’ did not see past his awkward moments and were glad to see the back of him even after he scored 25 league goals.
The spell at United was also problematic. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho it became clear that the new manager wanted to play a form of football that did not suit Lukaku. It was less an issue of turning up for big games as not getting the right sort of service or not getting picked. He scored just one goal in 16 starts against so-called ‘Big Six’ opposition but he might have thrived in a different system. He is much more than a flat-track bully.
Working with Antonio Conte at Inter has been very good for Lukaku. The manager challenged his striker in a manner which could have alienated lesser characters. After one poor performance, he called Lukaku out. “In front of the whole team, he told me that I was really trash and that he would take me off after five minutes if I did it again,” the chastised player said. “He stepped on my confidence, but it woke me up at the same time.”
In the 1-0 victory over Portugal in the knockout round Lukaku gave a masterclass in how to be a hold-up centre forward. With Belgium under facing wave after wave of Portuguese attacks, he provided an outlet and relieved the pressure. When he picked up the ball in the midfield area, he was keen to turn and run at defenders, causing panic. His pace belies his physique. He is much quicker than his bulky presence suggests.
The goals are only part of his game. In the modern era the traditional rugged centre forward has almost disappeared. Lukaku is a throwback to a different age but with a full armoury of contemporary subtleties. The Italian back line know that he will take a robust approach that unsettles even the best defenders. And Italy can argue that they are Europe’s finest stoppers.
Roberto Mancini’s side have maintained 11 clean sheets in their past 12 games. With doubts lingering over Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, who both picked up knocks against Portugal, the onus will fall on Lukaku. He is ready for the challenge.
After leading Inter to the Scudetto and winning Serie A’s most valuable player award, he is at the peak of his career. His international goalscoring record is phenomenal – 46 in his last 45 games – and his power, technique and intelligent running make him a formidable opponent. Italy’s back four are familiar with him, which is in their favour, but stopping him is a different matter.
This is Lukaku’s moment. He was never quite appreciated in England but almost all the doubters have been convinced of his excellence by now. Tonight he can underline that he is one of the best forwards in the game.
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