How the perception of Romelu Lukaku has changed
The perception of Romelu Lukaku before he arrived at Manchester United was, for many, of a battering ram centre-forward who terrorised defenders with his pace and power.
Watch his four goals so far in Russia and marvel at his finesse. The diving header and measured clip past the Panama keeper, before the clever stutter to find an angle with his left foot and cute drink with his right in the win over Tunisia.
It was his acceleration which took him clear of the defenders, but the execution said much about his composure and technical acumen. No muscle required, no shrugging his markers off, just clinical dead-eyed finishing.
Of course, he did not score in the dramatic round-of-16 victory over Japan and could have added to his tally on a couple of occasions. No doubt those quick to criticise United’s top scorer last term would have been ready to pass judgment had Roberto Martinez’s side not stormed back to avoid an almighty upset.
Instead, he showed centre-forward intelligence of the highest level when it mattered most, during the final attack of a pulsating tie. An initial run created space down the right flank for the marauding Thomas Meunier and, when the full-back delivered a cross, the moment arrived for Lukaku.
When you bag an injury-time winner to send your country to the #WorldCup quarter-finals 💥@NChadli 🇧🇪👏— FIFA World Cup 🏆 (@FIFAWorldCup) 2 July 2018
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This was his time, the chance to stick another knife into those claims that he is a ‘flat-track bully’, who doesn’t score in the biggest matches. This was the last minute of a game at the World Cup knockout stage, when the stakes could barely be higher. Think of the Golden Boot, think of the glory, the adulation and forgetting any earlier opportunities.
What Lukaku did next, in those circumstances, was extraordinary. Realising Japan captain Makoto Hasebe was in close proximity, and possibly able to block the shot, he stood over the ball to pull off a dummy and render Hasebe helpless. It would be the 34-year-old Eintracht Frankfurt man’s final act in international football as he could only look on in horror as Nacer Chadli was left with a simple finish.
Romelu did not touch the ball in the move but was fundamental to one of the slickest counter-attacks you will ever see, the sort that should be shown in coaching manuals to kids who play the game. He put the team first, the greater goal, and was not solely concerned with becoming the hero, even when that very real opportunity presented itself.
It displayed such great presence of mind and this is nothing new from the Belgian. He’s a cerebral thinker and an intelligent person away from the pitch. You only have to watch him effortlessly switch between several languages while conducting interviews with the media at the Aon Training Complex. Engaging and interesting in each of them.
Witness his stirring team-talks to his Belgium colleagues, rallying the troops and reminding them of the task in hand and the need for focus. This striker is not obsessed with his own goals and ambitions, though he clearly has them, when the bigger picture is the team and even greater achievement.
Whatever the latter stages of the World Cup have in store for Romelu Lukaku, those preconceptions about him, from some, when he joined the club only a year ago, will long have been altered by the time he reports back for pre-season training and his second season as a Red.
He’s not merely a physical centre-forward. He’s clearly not a ‘flat-track bully’. He’s not someone who is so single minded in plundering goals that he puts it above everything else.
Romelu Lukaku has only just turned 25. He’s an intelligent, graceful finisher who is showing world-class form in Russia.
That bodes extremely well for Manchester United.