Band Mike McGrath
It took five years and six attempts but Romelu Lukaku finally managed a first victory over Cristiano Ronaldo last season.
It was a moment for Lukaku to savor at the San Siro after winning against one of his idols. He was trying to move the Juventus Scudetto forward, but there was a deep appreciation for him, to the point that he pleaded his case during a debate between Messi and Ronaldo among friends.
Lukaku is no different from other forwards at the top of the European scorer rankings, concerned about who is the real deal. One phrase that pops up is a “stat-padder,” borrowed from American sport, where a player boosts his stats with goals that make little sense in games.
Ronaldo is not a stat-padder. Great performances, important goals on the highest stage. The consolation sentences matter little to him.
It is by this standard that Lukaku wants to be measured in a career where questions have been asked about whether he is in the upper range of attackers. His confidence has fluctuated, but right now he’s heading into today’s Euro round of 16 game, against Portugal and Ronaldo, as a player with healthy arrogance about his game.
Ronaldo will start the draw at La Cartuja in Sevilla with a goal to overtake Ali Daei and become the all-time top international scorer, with Lukaku among the few players with a chance to catch him.
In fact, Lukaku’s record compares favorably with 63 goals in 96 caps. Ronaldo had scored 36 goals after the same number of internationals, although his goal rate since has been superhuman.
Despite being Belgium’s top scorer, Lukaku has had a difficult relationship with his supporters. He was taunted for bad duds and expressed his frustration ahead of the last World Cup, when asked about his brother’s comments about the country’s most prolific player not receiving the credit he deserved. “Maybe he’s right,” Lukaku said.
“When things were going well I would read newspaper articles and they would call me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker,” he wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “When things weren’t going well, they called me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese origin.”
Since finishing third at the World Cup, Lukaku has fallen back in love with playing for Belgium. Before, there were questions about when he could stop with international football. Achieve 50 goals?
Qatar? He is now believed to have his eye on his century for Belgium, which would only take about fifty more caps given their current scoring rate.
Vincent Kompany was a confidant of the Belgian team and is no longer there but he is close to Axel Witsel and Dedryck Boyata. He has a connection between Chelsea and Eden Hazard, although he was loaned out while they were both at the club. There is chemistry on the pitch with Kevin De Bruyne.
The return of Thierry Henry to the coaching staff is also an important factor. The two spoke to each other almost every week when the Frenchman left for MLS with the Montreal Impact. Now he’s back and showing he can still play in training.
Ahead of the game against Finland last week, the players practiced on free kicks for half an hour before Henry approached and placed one in the top corner with his left foot. Lukaku escorted him off the pitch saying, “We top scorers don’t need to hang out here.”
Lukaku has just turned 28 and appears to be the happiest of his career, having won his first title, with Inter Milan, as a young striker at Anderlecht. He wants to stay with the Italian champions and win back-to-back titles, proving that last season was no fluke.
The only hurdle would be an offer that Inter owners could consider to allay their financial worries. Numerous Italian sources claim that £ 103million would guarantee Lukaku, which is far below the price Harry Kane, Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe are asking for.
Manchester United’s decision to let him go for Inter was part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s cultural reboot, but they are still looking for his long-term replacement, having found a short-term solution with Edinson Cavani.
He was still catching up under Solskjaer, having been absent from the club when the Norwegian arrived. He was cleared by Jose Mourinho to fly in a private plane for the birth of his first child following the loss to Liverpool on December 16. By the time he returned from his paternity leave, Mourinho had been replaced.
Solskjaer started his tenure without his main striker and allowed Lukaku to return to action after Christmas before playing him against Paris St-Germain and seeing his two goals secure him the permanent post. However, at the end of the season Solskjaer was considering different combinations up front, all involving Marcus Rashford as a center forward. It turned out that Rashford is United’s future.
It was Antonio Conte who restored Lukaku’s confidence when he joined Inter. San Siro nutritionists also changed Lukaku’s diet and made him slimmer after detecting a digestive problem.
The result was a return to the player at the start of his career at United, who recorded high speeds late in games with his sprints.
“He’s in control of the whole situation. I don’t know any defenders, except [Virgil] Van Dijk, physically who could cope with this, ”said Rio Ferdinand, analyzing his game on the BBC. That’s great praise for a player with more international goals in sight, perhaps taking him to a century.