Croatia 1-2 Belgium: Dynamite Lukaku sends Belgium to Brazil
There was the injury to Christian Benteke, added to which was one for Vincent Kompany. Zakaria Bakkali plunged us all into a state of even further confusion over his international future, Marouane Fellaini’s wrist was causing problems, Mousa Dembélé limped out of training and potential tragedy was averted when Croatian police arrested a drunk bus driver who was due to transport the Red Devils to their team hotel. Surely, events would not conspire to stop Belgium now or even delay what has started to look inevitable – a first international tournament in twelve years.
Croatia were determined to rally in front of their home fans following their previous home international, which saw them suffer a shock and what was to prove a mortal defeat (in terms of automatic qualification) to Scotland. Even though logic, both mathematical and footballing, stood rather imposingly in the way of the first spot, there was to be no suppressing the passion of the home side in front of their own supporters.
Unfortunately, that desire often manifested itself as desperation and thus their energies could not be channelled into a performance that would deliver the required result. And as the game went on, the players and fans were engulfed not just by the torrential rain but by the realisation that this Belgium team were not to be stopped. Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo had not travelled to Zagreb to see his country’s date with destiny become a date with doubt.
Doubt though existed in some quarters as to who would replace Benteke and lead the line on this most enticing of occasions. Neither Benteke nor Romelu Lukaku had been overly convincing in a red or black shirt in spite of the huge strides they had made in Premier League football. However, both these outstanding young forward specimens remain in the early stages of their top level career and had Wilmots opted for Mirallas instead of his now Everton teammate Lukaku, it would have been to deliver the same crushing blow to his confidence that Chelsea had managed to land on numerous occasions.
Former Club Brugge man Ivan Perisic had the first opportunity but shot wide. He then gave the ball away to Steven Defour in midfield. The FC Porto midfielder kept calm and stroked the ball into the path of Lukaku. The giant number nine made for the Croatian goal with his own brand of intimidating purpose, like Godzilla on the rampage. And yet when faced with Stipe Pletikosa, he had the sang froid to round the veteran goalkeeper and roll the ball into the empty net. Two players, who may not necessarily be in the strongest side (équipe type / type-elftal), had combined to score the most significant goal for Belgium in more than a decade.
One of the great things about this role is the interaction with other supporters. One of my favourites is Rutger Goeminne, a Standard Liège fan from Flanders. He tweeted that one good thing to come from Dembélé’s knock was that it increased the chances of the old Standard midfield being reunited once more. It wasn’t an expression of malice against Dembélé but rather the positive side of the tribalism between club supporters that runs deep in Belgium – he saw a silver lining and an opportunity for a player whom he had long championed. Wilmots had always underlined the importance of not one player, nor even eleven but 25.
While I tire of the endless shopping lists of Belgian players trotted out by bandwagon jumpers, there is a serious point to be made. There’s no point boasting about depth if there is panic at the first sign of an absentee among the first eleven and this seems an appropriate juncture to also pay tribute to Nicolas Lombaerts, who has stepped in and let no-one down as the qualification campaign has reached its climax.
Back to events on the field and Croatia were again the architects of their own downfall when they went two goals down. A free kick in a promising position was squandered and Belgium saw an opportunity to pounce. De Bruyne and Fellaini helped the ball on to Lukaku, who was still inside his own half. He nicked the ball past Corluka and then showed the turn of speed Ferrari wish they had to keep pace with Sebastian Vettel. This time, he had a little more good fortune but sheer determination and brute force saw him again round Pletikosa and stumble but on this night of all nights, he wasn’t going to fall flat on his face and he duly doubled the advantage to secure a World Cup ticket despite Niko Kranjcar’s majestic late consolation.
Lukaku’s second brings me back to another exchange I had with a supporter. He asked me why I once referred to Lukaku as Brussels Dynamite when he hails from Antwerpen. It goes back of course to the legendary song sung by the Anderlecht fans. And then memories came flooding back to his debut in the famous testmatches, the achievement of becoming the Pro League’s leading scorer, missing a penalty but scoring as his move to Chelsea loomed large, his outspoken frustration at his treatment by Chelsea, his renaissance with West Brom and Everton before this crowning glory. In the week one of sport’s greatest teenage stars Sachin Tendulkar (he debuted at 16 back in 1989) announced his retirement, the young Lukaku, at whom so much has been thrown at such a young age, exploded to devastating effect. This was Belgian Dynamite – red, black and yellow.
Football brings this wrongly much-maligned and wonderful nation together as one. Football is also therefore the nation’s favourite form of escapism and whatever our daily struggles, in the hours and days to come and even in the months leading up to Brazil, it will be hard to escape the sense of unbridled joy among Belgium’s eleven million citizens. This qualification is the culmination of what of course has been an outstanding, collective effort and something, which will hopefully be reflected in the success of Belgium as a country in the years to come.
And so I want to finish on a personal note. It’s been a roller coaster ride since Leekens sensationally walked out. Shock, amazement, frustration at having to follow on the radio from my Bettembourg basement, cautious optimism, excitement, tired eyes at 3 in the morning watched the game in Cleveland and now relief – every emotion has been felt. I wouldn’t swap a single second of it. Thank you and most of all, congratulations, proficiat and félicitations.