Lukaku descends further into Belgium madness as Thierry Henry prepares to pick up the phone again

Matt Stead
Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku reacts to a missed chance
Why does the world want to hurt Romelu Lukaku so much?

Romelu Lukaku must have done some awful things in a past life because the world is out to get him. ‘It wasn’t easy’ to get over Belgium pain last time.

 

Romelu Lukaku can expect a few more texts from Thierry Henry in the coming days.

“You guys don’t understand what was happening,” the former Belgium assistant said in May 2023. “It wasn’t easy but he came out of it. And that’s why I’m very proud of him. It was really far from where he is right now.”

A few weeks later, Lukaku would cap a mixed Inter season in the only way he knows how: by blocking a teammate’s goal-bound effort at 1-0 down in the closing stages of the Champions League final.

It is the sort of thing which seems to happen to him with freakish frequency. Even with the hair of Wout Faes ostensibly patrolling the Belgium defence, no player channels the rake-stepping energy of Sideshow Bob quite like Lukaku.

The 2022 World Cup was an obvious low point. “For the first time in 15 years playing football I went through a moment like this. I let my country down,” he later said of an utterly comical display against Croatia, in which four presentable opportunities were squandered en route to a group-stage exit.

“We all knew as players and staff that this was our last chance. And to go out in the way we did… I took everything into my mind when I left camp and I really felt down,” said Lukaku, who went into Euro 2024 as very much one of Belgium’s few remaining elder statesmen. He is one of four players in Domenico Tedesco’s squad with more than 100 caps, with only three others on as many as 50.

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Fourteen of these Belgium players have 15 caps or fewer, five of them started against Slovakia and none took to the environment particularly well. Koen Casteels played well enough as the first Belgium keeper other than Thibaut Courtois to play in a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup, but Faes and Zeno Debast emitted nervousness in central defence and neither Orel Mangala nor Amadou Onana could control the midfield.

But the blame for the goal can only be apportioned to Jeremy Doku, and whoever played a part in him having the ball next to his own corner flag in the sixth minute. With no player to dribble past or space to knock the ball into and sprint, the Manchester City forward was penned in and could only play a pass across his own area. Faes admired the sparks spitting from an emerging dumpster fire and Ivan Schranz scored after Juraj Kucka could not convert his clever flick.

Kucka and Ondrej Duda stoically defied their pre-tournament billing as entirely forgotten Premier League players with a brilliant performance alongside Stanislav Lobotka in the middle. Their styles meshed wonderfully and Kucka offered a masterclass in winning free-kicks to relieve pressure. Belgium committed 14 fouls in a stop-start game – only Serbia (19) and Germany (15) have made more in their opening games so far.

That understandably impacted Belgium’s rhythm but cannot fully excuse it. This is a much-changed side from even 18 months ago in Qatar but there remains a staleness about them. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco at left-back is the continuation of an experiment which should have barred Roberto Martinez from management for years instead of rewarding him for failure with the Portugal job, while Kevin De Bruyne must be sharing notes with Phil Foden on their diminished individual powers when surrounded by countrymen instead of club teammates, compounded by the slight downgrade in coaching standards that comes with the switch.

But Lukaku’s own personal nightmare was the true anchor which offered a grimacing, disbelieving audience a sense of familiarity. Slovakia scored in the seventh minute and the striker wasted two chances even before then to set the tone.

His most glaring miss came on the stroke of half-time when played through by Carrasco. The gulf between Slovakia’s two centre-halves perhaps fooled Lukaku into thinking he had more time, but in any event his first touch was atrocious and the second was embarrassing.

Quite how Belgium have manufactured a position whereby the player they are least confident of seeing score when rampaging through completely unmarked at a crucial moment is the one with at least 52 more goals than any other who has ever represented them is unknown, but it is a phenomenal bit.

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The echoes of Croatia were ringing out that far back, only exacerbated by a second half in which Lukaku was plunged further into absurd failure despite not actually much if anything wrong. He scored the two opportunities provided to him, first by Amadou Onana’s towering header back across goal and then Lois Openda’s excellent run and cut-back. But those rake steps were close behind: offside by virtue of being marginally ahead of the ball; a vague hand in the build-up from a player being pushed and not even looking at the ball he was supposedly handling.

Lukaku tapped in the first and hammered home the second but an entire life’s worth of walking under ladders and across black cats while breaking mirrors appears destined to undermine any hope he might have of leading Belgium to anything other than humiliation and collapse on the global stage.

There is time for them to rectify this situation in a group blown wide open by defeats for the two favourites to progress, but the power of the Lukaku curse is so strong that a second straight exit at this early stage does not feel particularly unfathomable.

At this point, yet another Jose Mourinho reunion makes depressing sense for a 31-year-old who has long since had a whole career’s load of increasingly ridiculous heartache. The world obviously wants to hurt Lukaku; he might as well just lean into it.