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Romelu Lukaku mixes mental fortitude with world-class ability to propel Belgium’s golden generation

·3 min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Amid all the games, the multiple storylines, the more, more, more of modern football, it can become the norm to skirt over scars that linger in favour of whatever is fresh and new.

As emotion hung heavy in the air over Parken on Thursday evening, contouring Denmark’s fixture with Belgium, it occurred how Romelu Lukaku’s turmoil over watching Christian Eriksen suffer cardiac arrest was no longer even background noise.

Naturally, the focus had been on the Danes - especially considering their spirited, aggressive performance in tribute to their midfielder, whose recovery was taking place at the hospital 500 yards away from the stadium.

But it was obvious that Lukaku was still heavily affected by his Inter Milan team-mate needing to be resuscitated on the pitch after “being gone.” He was teary when a giant ‘Eriksen 10’ shirt had been unveiled prior to kick-off, as the players were priming to line up against each other.

On 10 minutes, when the game was halted to applaud the 29-year-old in a move that Lukaku was central to implementing, the striker looked up to the skies and had to stem a flood of feelings.

The pair had spoken earlier in the day and Eriksen warningly joked that Denmark had plans for stifling the tournament’s premier forward.

It was light to cut through the thickness of fear, worry, shock, and hurt.

Lukaku had cried incessantly in Belgium’s team hotel on Saturday when the incident happened during Denmark’s opener with Finland. The distressing scenes materialised around 10 minutes before Roberto Martinez was prepping his meeting with the whole group to talk through tactics for their fixture with Russia.

There ended up being minimal discussion about football with Lukaku and others like Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who have also shared a dressing room with Eriksen, needing to be consoled.

In this context it is astounding - a triumph of mental fortitude - that the marksman has powered Belgium’s progress to the knockout rounds.

His two goals in their opener against Russia, with the first prompting a run to the camera and a “Chris, sterkte jongen [stay strong, boy], I love you,” message came when he was in no psychological state for competitive action let alone to perform so strongly.

 (BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
(BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

“I spend more time with him than with my family,” Lukaku offered in the aftermath of the victory over Russia. “It was difficult to play because my mind was with Christian. It was very difficult to focus for this match.”

Days may have passed, but the task of turning up getting in the zone and turning down thoughts of Eriksen did not get any easier.

Tackling Denmark in such emotive circumstances, with much of the world swept along by their dynamic display and crossing fingers they would win, was extremely testing.

Belgium did not function in the first half, with Lukaku completely isolated until the introduction of Kevin De Bruyne.

But then the No.9 shaped both of his side’s goals, sparking the equaliser to cancel out Youssef Poulsen’s effort with a 50-yard burst and cute pullback to the Manchester City midfielder, whose visionary pass allowed Thorgan Hazard a simple finish.

 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The second was born out of his persistence in keeping the ball alive for Belgium, then displaying intelligent footwork to see off Joakim Maehle, Jannik Vestergaard and Martin Braithwaite.

His run into the box occupied the attention of two markers, helping De Bruyne’s wonder finish.

Lukaku has showcased supreme hold-up and link play, unreal strength and speed, an eye for the right pass and appetite to muddle defenders as well as a golden clinical edge in the final third.

But above his technical quality, he has also illustrated phenomenal mental steel to perform while under personal torment and propel Belgium closer to the major trophy this talented generation so crave.

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