Lukaku, Belgium and the big tournament freeze | Football News - Hindustan Times
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Lukaku, Belgium and the big tournament freeze

Jun 18, 2024 02:31 PM IST

The big striker missed sitters, and when he didn't, they were ruled out in the Euro 2024 loss to Slovakia

Since his debut in March 2010, Romelu Lukaku has scored 85 goals for Belgium in 116 games. That is a superb strike-rate by whatever metric you choose to rate it by. Among those 85 goals are the 14 (off 29 shots) he scored in Euro qualifying. But as things stand, we’ll remember him not for his goals but his misses.

Belgium's forward #10 Romelu Lukaku reacts at the end the UEFA Euro 2024 Group E football match against Slovakia(AFP)
Belgium's forward #10 Romelu Lukaku reacts at the end the UEFA Euro 2024 Group E football match against Slovakia(AFP)

The 1.91m tall striker can be an imposing figure when he runs towards the opposition goal, but put him in a situation that requires a soft touch or a bit of technical wizardry and you’ll often find him stumbling over his own two feet.

Belgium’s defeat against Slovakia in their Euro opener counts as a surprise but only in mathematical terms. It was the largest gap (45 places - Belgium 3rd, Slovakia 48th) in FIFA World Rankings for an upset in European Championship history. However, if one puts the rankings aside and focuses on their history in major tournaments and you’ll see that a slip-up was always on the cards.

This is a team that has a lot more than just Lukaku. Kevin De Bruyne will walk into virtually any top team, Leandro Trossard just had a brilliant season for Arsenal, Manchester City's Jeremy Doku is a trickster every team would love to have and Jan Vertonghen adds some veteran grit to the defence. There is class in almost every position. But put them in a position where they feel the world’s eyes on them and they freeze.

According to stats on ESPN, Belgium have not converted any of their last 47 shots on goal in major tournaments - including missing 11 big chances. When the pressure is off, they are brilliant. But, as Slovakia were clearly aware, put them under the pump and the brittleness within often comes to the fore.

Belgium fans might argue that luck didn’t go their way. Two Lukaku goals were overturned by VAR but he also missed three big chances, the most of any player in a Euro tournament since 2000. And in a tournament as tightly contested as this, you need to be clinical upfront.

The loss was their first defeat since Morocco beat them in the group stage at the 2022 World Cup. In between, they went unbeaten in 14 games before stumbling in the Euro opener.

"I knew that eventually we would lose a game,” Belgium coach Domenico Tedesco said after the game. “Unfortunately, it was today. There's not much I can tell the team to improve. We created many chances and had we scored, it would have been an easier game. The only thing that we didn't do well was our finishing. It's part of the game, and of course, the players were disappointed."

Belgium are placed in Group E, along with Romania (who were very impressive in their win over Ukraine), Ukraine and Slovakia. Another win should be good enough for Slovakia or Romania and that means the world’s third best team has some playing to do.

Belgium defender Yannick Carrasco said the right things after the loss, “We lacked luck more than rhythm. There were many opportunities but we were unable to find the finishing touch. We have to stay focused, we have two games left to qualify." Whether these words will get through to his team-mates is another matter.

This was the first time Belgium failed to score in nine Euro matches and they’ll do well to shrug it off as a minor blip. Tedesco will hope that the big players in the Red Devils outfit will show great spirit at this juncture. If they allow the situation to overpower them, then the younger team-mates won’t be able to break out of this vicious circle either.

Mentality will become key for Belgium. They will need to put this defeat behind them and prove that they are worthy of being counted among the best in the world. It has proved to be difficult for them to do in the past but this is an opportunity to put all of that behind them in an effort that may go some way towards changing their reputation.

Belgium find themselves in a familiar hole but their immediate future isn’t set in stone, yet.

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