De Bruyne masterclass gets Belgium back on track despite VAR continuing to troll Lukaku

Dave Tickner
Kevin De Bruyne celebrates after scoring for Belgium against Romania at Euro 2024
Kevin De Bruyne celebrates against Romania

There’s Groups of Death, Groups of Dearth, Groups of Existential Despair (whichever group England are in) and now the Group of Equality. It’s even Group E. We should have seen it coming.

Belgium’s win here was certainly easy enough to see coming from the moment barely 75 seconds in but after what had already been a conspicuously out-of-the-blocks charge from Belgium when Youri Tielemans fired the opening goal.

The second goal – via the now seemingly obligatory disallowed Romelu Lukaku effort – took far longer than expected and was a surprising one when it came, but overall that was ideal.

Who doesn’t want a group that’s locked at three points all round with a game to go? Who doesn’t want to now see two draws to finish this group off so the format can send a team with four points home while almost certainly sending someone from another group through with three?

And while we have absolutely nothing against Lukaku specifically, once a player has had two goals disallowed for reasons that are small and twatty, we are going to need to see that player denied again and again.

He was brilliant as well, which possibly makes it funnier. Brilliant in first holding the ball up and then teeing it up for Tielemans and running intelligently throughout.

We’re not about to call his run that semi-automated VAR decreed sent his big toe beyond Radu Dragusin’s top-knot an unintelligent run. The finish, having so despicably gained that unacceptable two or three centimetres’ advantage, was brilliant as well.

But it was all for nothing and for the third time in two games he was denied the turning point that might get him scoring goals again. Which sounds – and is – a strange thing to say about someone who has scored more goals at this tournament than anyone else only to see every single one of them chalked off.

Two offsides by a combined distance of six inches and a nonsense handball. Semi-automated offside does at least make these maddening, joy-sapping decisions quickly but still. This isn’t what anybody signed up for. We’ve let the nerds win.

Belgium at least need do no rueing tonight on the basis of the result, sealed by their best player on the night Kevin De Bruyne winning a battle of strength with Dragusin – no mean feat, that – and bravely beating the keeper to the ball to stab home. It was not a very De Bruyne goal. It was, if anything, quite a Lukaku goal. Except it counted.

It might be that De Bruyne is hitting this tournament just right after missing the first half of Manchester City’s season.

Plenty of the Premier League’s big guns have looked notably weary this month – and not just those trying to stay awake playing Southgate Sufferball.

Others have looked a bit off the pace having not played much at club level. De Bruyne might just have split the difference beautifully, hitting this tournament in full stride after half-a-season’s football. He’s at peak sharpness without the fatigue to dull the edge.

This was one of the best midfield displays we’ve seen in Germany thus far and he wasn’t alone. Belgium had to win tonight, but to do it with a performance as pleasing as this is huge. It’s a very silly group and Belgium remain in genuine peril of being the first top seed to go out at the group stage of a 24-team Euros, while even finishing second and going up against whoever emerges in second spot out of France and Netherlands in Group D isn’t exactly a pleasing outcome.

Romania for their part might not have had as much fun as in the opening game, but in refusing to wilt after that opening goal and creating plenty of their own chances will still feel they can get the job done in their final group game against Slovakia.

We must also acknowledge that the format takes some of the sting out of this beautifully poised group.

It only takes one team – and let’s be honest it’s probably Belgium – taking a decisive early lead in one game to encourage both teams in the other game to plod their way to a draw that takes them both through to the knockouts. Take away the third-place safety net and this would be so much more fun.

But you need a group to go like this, and fair play to Group E because it did have the look of being quite possible the dullest of all the groups in Germany and has turned out to be quite the opposite.

The four points all round dream lives on, and who knows, we may yet see this tournament graced by a Lukaku goal that the capricious VAR gods deign to allow.