Saturday, July 31, 2021

Lukaku lifts short-handed Belgium but ensures Eriksen remains the priority

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 12 Jun 2021

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Widespread concern met the decision for Denmark and Finland to return to the pitch less than two hours after Christian Eriksen had first collapsed in Copenhagen on Saturday.

An alarming incident prompted serious fears for Eriksen’s life, fears that were eased but not eradicated by positive updates on the midfielder’s condition.

For those watching from afar, the swift restart could not have been anticipated. There was wonder instead for how Belgium and Russia could possibly play later.

The Belgium squad features Eriksen’s Inter team-mate Romelu Lukaku and long-term Ajax and Tottenham colleagues Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.

But, sure enough, confirmation was forthcoming of the resumption in Group B’s first fixture, set for 20:30 CET, with Belgium’s kick-off to follow as scheduled half an hour later.

Understandably, Denmark turned in a distracted display. Lacking the same enthusiasm as earlier, they fell to a 1-0 defeat that would usually have been considered a major upset. Few were thinking about Finland’s historic result, minds focused instead on Eriksen.

Indeed, it was a similar story in Saint Petersburg, even if Russia made for accommodating hosts.

Lukaku profited from hapless Andrey Semenov defending and finished ruthlessly after 10 minutes. Rather than revel in his eighth tournament goal – the most of any Belgium player – the forward made for a nearby television camera.

“Chris,” he bellowed, reaching the lens. “Chris, stay strong. I love you.”

Eriksen occupied Lukaku’s thoughts even at a moment of apparent elation, an action that backed up the words of UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.

“At these times, the unity of the football family is so strong and [Eriksen] and his family carry with them the good wishes and prayers of everyone,” Ceferin said.

Further tributes will follow and it is difficult to imagine how that agonising Parken Stadium wait for family, friends, team-mates, opponents and fans, eager for any news at all as medical staff worked at length, does not overshadow the entire tournament.

Lukaku will hope there is at least time for some Belgian cheer before the Euros concludes at Wembley next month.

If Eriksen continues to recover, the Red Devils striker can allow his attention to return to the professional task at hand: finally delivering finals glory for his country.

Now or never is the popular verdict. Belgium entered this competition with a squad that boasts the most caps and ranks second oldest, behind only Sweden.

Lukaku is 28 and should play at Qatar 2022 and beyond, but some of his team-mates may not.

While the defence is undoubtedly ageing, the injury issues that are dogging other star names have become increasingly, frustratingly regular.

As Belgium reached the latter stages of Brazil 2014, Euro 2016 and Russia 2018 – only France also figured in the quarter-finals of all three tournaments – no outfield players started more matches than Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel (all 15 – tied with Alderweireld).

In 2020-2021, the trio were restricted to 11, 36 and 18 club starts respectively.

Hazard, having dealt with a series of muscle problems, started from the bench on Saturday. De Bruyne (orbital fracture) and Witsel (torn Achilles tendon) are both still recovering.

“Those are players who have something extra,” said Dries Mertens, who took up one of the vacant attacking roles. “To not have three players like that, we’re going to feel that, but we have to step up and be ready.”

Leander Dendoncker stepped in for Witsel and said: “Axel has such a massive role in the squad, so it’s logical we’re talking about him. Kevin and Eden aren’t here now either, and we’re all talking about their absence. It’s normal; they’ve earned it.”

But it was Lukaku who ensured that absence was not felt. His clinical opener wrecked Russian dreams and might have been quickly followed by a second had Georgi Dzhikiya not expertly intervened. There were two minutes remaining when he belatedly hit the net again for Belgium’s third, celebrated in more traditional fashion.

The Nerazzurri superstar has now been involved in 26 goals (22 goals, four assists) in his 19 games for Belgium since the World Cup.

Of Lukaku’s nine finals goals, only one has arrived in the knockout stages, but this early effort was crucial in seizing control of the group. On this form, he will surely also add to that tally.

For all that this was an impressive win as Hazard featured sparingly and two key midfielders not at all, there is an argument – at least from those studying their wallcharts – Belgium might actually be better served finishing second in their pool. That could potentially mean no repeat of 2018, when they landed in the trickier half of the draw and met France in the last four. The same scenario is very possible again from first place.

That was not something for Lukaku to worry about on this occasion, though.

His friend’s welfare was of primary concern, and then a talismanic outing to lift spirits just a little at the end of a tough day for football.

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SoccerNews

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