Romelu Lukaku believes he should be classified now as a world-class striker and says everything fell into place for him in the season just finished, as he looks ahead to meeting Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the European Championship on Sunday.
The comparison with the two has dominated the build-up to the last-16 clash between holders Portugal and top-ranked Belgium in Seville, in what could be the clash of the round.
Ronaldo is one goal away from setting a record for most national team goals, while Lukaku is Belgium’s top scorer with 63 in 96 international appearances.
“At his age, he continues to shine and I’m going to try and get as close to his achievements as possible,” Lukaku said of his Portuguese rival, who, he added, was a major source of inspiration and motivation.
“Oh, I need competition. When someone says he’s better than me, I want to transcend him. Ronaldo wants to be the best at everything, (France striker Kylian) Mbappe also wants to win everything,” Lukaku told reporters.
“I’ve taken a big step. (Robert) Lewandowski, (Karim) Benzema and (Harry) Kane used to be talked about as world-class strikers. For me, those sort of comment was always limited to: ‘He is in shape’. Well, now I’m world class, too. That was my personal goal.
“It was important to start winning trophies, and the Serie A title with Inter gave me motivation and now I also want to win with the Red Devils. It would be the ultimate recognition for this team. If I play badly I will be really disappointed in myself and the team, because now is the right time to harvest.”
Belgium’s golden generation have been at top of the Fifa rankings for almost three years but are without a major tournament triumph, losing in the semi-finals of Russia 2018 to France three years ago.
“We were not mature enough at the World Cup against France. We tried too hard to do well and were beaten. Now we know how to win in many different kinds of ways.”
Extra day’s rest
The contrast in progress could not have been greater with Belgium masterfully overcoming adversity to win all their group games, while a pugnacious Portugal saw their fortunes ebb and flow before they finished third in their section after holding France to a 2-2 draw on Wednesday.
An extra day of rest was Belgium’s reward for topping Group B, having seen the talismanic trio of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel all return from injury after it looked as if the heart of the team had been torn out on the eve of the tournament, threatening to scupper their strong chances.
The influence of the trio was clearly displayed when they came on after a torrid first half in Belgium’s second group against Denmark, neutralising the emotion-fueled hosts and turning a half-time deficit into a 2-1 win in Copenhagen.
That allowed Roberto Martinez to rest players in the 2-0 win over Finland on Monday in a textbook tournament scenario.
But whether it turns out to be the ideal recipe for success in the knockout phase remains to be seen. It could be counter argued that Portugal are better prepared, having had to scrap against the likes of Germany, who beat them 4-2, and France.
Martinez said his team has no specific plan to counter the threat of Ronaldo.
“Obviously we are going to have to defend really well but when you create a plan against a specific player, you can get hurt by other players,” he told a news conference.
“Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo is a player who seems to pick the right moment, that right pass and right place and you have to always be aware. We all know he is one of the best footballers in the world.”