Football Features

“What defender could stop him?” – Five things learned as Lukaku leads Belgium to beat Croatia 1-0 in final friendly before Euro 2020

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:31, 6 June 2021

In a tight night of football, Belgium beat Croatia 1-0 in their final international friendly before Euro 2020.

The game was settled by a Romelu Lukaku goal just before half-time and Eden Hazard made his first appearance for Belgium since late 2019. What did we learn?

1. Lukaku in lethal form

Is there a more in-form striker in the world than Romelu Lukaku? Perhaps Robert Lewandowski, but that would be it. Belgium’s world-class no. 9 is in the form of his life and showed just that against Croatia, displaying the full range of his skills.

The runs he was making were enough of a problem, but his touch and sharpness in an around goal make him so much more dangerous. Like when he controlled the ball on the edge of the box, turned away from his marker and smashed the ball off the bar.

Or his towering header near the end of the game, when Hans Vanaken boomed a cross into the box and he towered above the Croatian defenders and launched a Pelé-in-1970-esque header low at the goal, only to be denied by a brilliant save from Dominik Livakovic.

Funnily enough the actual goal was nowhere near as crisp and refined, albeit it was still athletically incredible. A Dries Mertens cross was kept alive by Jan Vertonghen, headed down by Jason Denayer, and Lukaku lifted his right leg and smacked a spinning shot with the ball around chest height. That thing flew into the net as Lukaku walked away beating his chest, dominance established.

Serie A 2020/21 was Lukaku’s league, could Euro 2020 prove to be Lukaku’s tournament? In this kind of form, with the kind of varied supply lines that Belgium can give him, what defender could stop him? What immovable object could stand in the way of this irresistible force?

2. Magnificent Modric not enough

Croatia dominated the first-half of this game, and the reason for that was Luka Modric. While Ivan Rakitic has faded away and been replaced in the XI by Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric is still going strong at 35-years-old. The Real Madrid man has defied logic and ageing in 20/21 and while younger men are falling by the wayside, this old-timer is still going strong.

Modric’s ability to control the ball, move into space and find his next pass all in one, swift move is what makes him so dangerous. By the time you’ve figured out where he is, he’s making his pass and you’ve got to swivel your head around 360 degrees to find the ball again because there is no place on the pitch he can’t find with the ball.

But, he’s 35. So as the game wore on his performance dipped, and when he was taken off it became one-way traffic. Luka Modric might well be one of the best players at Euro 2020, but with no Croatia anywhere near his level, will that be enough?

3. Tielemans takes control

One thing Belgium have lacked since Mousa Dembélé faded away from his prime has been some genuine quality in the middle of the field. At the 2018 World Cup they fielded a trio of Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and a faded Dembélé who could only manage about an hour. They had no one who could take control of the game.

Not anymore.

Youri Tielemans is coming into the Euros off a sensational season with Leicester in which they finished 5th and won the FA Cup with the Belgian himself scoring the cup winner in the final.

Tielemans’s ability to retain possession at a slower tempo, or speed things up and thread the eye of the needle with pinpoint long-range passes, is going to make a massive difference to a Belgian side that is now no longer reliant on long-balls from centre-backs to advance the ball consistently and effectively.

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4. Courtois world-class

Thibaut Courtois was so good for Belgium at the 2018 World Cup that he won The Best goalkeeper award that year. However his move to Real Madrid had him looking like the worst goalkeeper that year! And sure enough Courtois’ rough form continued for basically a season and a half. Then in late 2019, something switched. Suddenly he started making saves, keeping clean sheets, and before we knew it he was “back.”

Now going into the Euros, Courtois is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. Certainly top three on form. And given he has already proven his big tournament ability, opponents should be very scared of his ability to make up for Belgium’s less than stellar defence.

Today he wasn’t exposed that much, but Belgium still almost threw it away in stoppage time allowing Josip Brekalo to get a clean shot off. But despite being largely underworked all game, Courtois dropped to the deck with incredible reflexes and palmed the ball away superbly to keep the score at 1-0. A goalkeeper that lights out? That’s a problem.

5. Rough but good enough

Belgium’s back three consists of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, two defenders in their mid-30’s who are both past their prime and Jason Denayer, who is good but not great. That shouldn’t really work as a back three and when you watch Belgium you do wonder if they are capable of handling opponents that run down the sides of their defence (Greece did this better than Croatia managed).

The thing is, however, they have enough star power to simply grind through it. Romelu Lukaku is obviously a genius, Leander Dendoncker is a workhorse alongside the brilliant Youri Tielemans in the middle, Yannick Carrasco is a title-winning wing-back, Thibaut Courtois is back in form, Jeremy Doku is an x-factor that perhaps no one in the entire world is quite prepared to see unleashed, then there’s Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne – great players stricken by injury who could now become the best super-subs on the planet.

Belgium aren’t a crisp, refined side. They are rough and tough but also they’re probably just about good enough.