With Belgium struggling to break down the US defence and get past Tim Howard in Brazil on Tuesday night, it took an unlikely hero to change their fortunes. Step forward Romelu Lukaku.
Lukaku has not had an easy tournament. Roundly criticised for his lack of movement and vision, not to mention his inability to hit the target, he was substituted early in Belgium’s first two games before being dropped in favour of the scarcely-capped teenager Divock Origi.
But with the match still goalless after 90 minutes, Belgian coach Marc Wilmots turned to Lukaku. Within minutes, he’d burst through the American defence and his blocked shot set up Kevin De Bruyne for the opener. His pace and power tore the tiring US back four to pieces, and it was he who fired home a second goal – the winner, as it turned out. If there were a man of the match award purely for the extra-time period, it would have been Lukaku’s.
Wilmots said afterwards: “Lukaku had been much criticised, and I told him, ‘do not worry – the second round might be your day’, and that’s what happened.”
So – should Chelsea keep Lukaku after all? This might seem a bit of an impetuous conclusion to take from a 30-minute cameo, but no more so than the judgement that he is useless on the basis of two earlier World Cup games.
The truth is that the game against USA showed Lukaku at his best, much as the earlier games showed him at his worst. He can be devastating against a tired defence, when he can run at them and use his strength to outmuscle them. But he’s not so good when he comes up against a compact defensive unit who give him little space, and when he’s expected to hold up the ball and provide the focal point to build attacks.
In short, he is a fantastic option to have on the bench – an impact substitution type of player. Many of his goals for WBA and Everton, not to mention Belgium, have been scored when he has come off the bench rather than started.
But he is not the new Drogba, a leader of the line – which is why the club have shelled out £32 million for Diego Costa, despite his similarly dubious performances at the World Cup. Does that mean we should offload him? Not at all! If Lukaku is prepared to be the second or third striker in the Chelsea squad, then he should be retained.
There are signs that the club and the player are moving towards that solution. Chelsea seems adamant that they won’t loan him out again and have a put a prohibitively large price-tag on him too. Although it’s reported that Atletico Madrid and others are still interested in acquiring him, it looks unlikely that they will be prepared to meet Chelsea’s terms.
In which case, Romelu Lukaku may be looking forward to a season of coming off the Chelsea bench and scoring more vital winners.