MOSCOW (Reuters) - With four World Cup goals in two games, Romelu Lukaku may have finally answered Belgian prayers for a consistent target man to turn a team of abundant midfield creativity into potential champions.
Two goals in a 5-2 win over Tunisia in Moscow on Saturday put Lukaku in exalted company, joint top scorer in the tournament with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Belgium’s top scorer of all time in major finals and the first man since Diego Maradona to score twice in two consecutive World Cup matches.
A hesitant first half in the opener against Panama, when captain Eden Hazard had to give him a rocket at the break and tell Lukaku to stop “hiding up front”, was followed with an explosive performance to unpick a packed defence in the second.
His control in scoring one with either foot against Tunisia after a header and a flick with his left in the 3-0 win over Panama, confirmed the faith coach Roberto Martinez has put in the 25-year-old, whom he signed as a youngster for Everton.
The Spaniard’s predecessor Marc Wilmots, whose Belgian record five goals in World Cups Lukaku has now equalled, struggled to fill a regular centre-forward berth for Belgium.
He juggled Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Michy Batshuayi but failed to find a formula to reward the pressing and passing of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens.
Defeat by Wales in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals after a loss at the same stage of the last World Cup to Argentina left Belgians fearing their “golden generation” might be doomed to be a footnote in the history of under-achieving national sides.
But with Lukaku, now flourishing at Manchester United and knocking in 11 goals in eight appearances during Belgium’s unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign, Martinez may have found the missing piece of the jigsaw.
“In front of goal he was as clinical as you would expect,” the coach said, praising the striker’s ability to get into just the right positions to convert both crosses and through balls.
As important for Martinez, who has fought to forge a team from a collection of individual talents, is a lack of ego — something Lukaku himself insists he has understood as he batted away talk of the Golden Boot for the tournament top scorer.
“I just want to get as far as I can with the team and if I can help my team by scoring as much as possible, that is all the better,” said the striker, who cites the imposing Didier Drogba of Chelsea and Ivory Coast as a childhood role model.
“He’s got it all,” midfielder Axel Witsel said of Lukaku, Belgium’s top scorer ever with 40 goals in 71 appearances.
“He’s physically strong and he scores easily. For now, everything’s going in. It needs to go like that.”
For Hazard, so often frustrated in the past to see passes he threaded through two or three markers go begging in the box, there is a new freedom in finding a reliable target man.
“When we pass the ball to Romelu in front of goal, he scores,” the Chelsea playmaker said.
With Belgium eyeing their first run to the final, one worry is a knock to the ankle late in the first half which forced Lukaku off a quarter of an hour into the second.
The player himself suggested it was not too serious, however. Martinez could rest him against England on Thursday, and call on his back-up, Batshuayi, who scored Belgium’s fifth.
Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Ferber in Moscow and Robert-Jan Bartunek and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, editing by Ed Osmond