Lukaku scores twice and sends message to Eriksen in Belgium’s win over Russia

To the extent that a night this fraught with worry could provide a moment of poetry, Romelu Lukaku found exactly what was required. Nothing could be more confronting to a footballer than seeing one of their own fight for his life on the pitch and, for a handful of Belgium’s players, the horror of events in Copenhagen held an even more personal dimension. Christian Eriksen has played with several of them at club level and, if any evidence were required of just how traumatic the build-up to this game had become, it was offered within 10 minutes of the start.

Lukaku and Eriksen have just won Serie A together with Internazionale and achievements of that stature create bonds for life. In Belgium’s first real attack against a shoddy Russia he was given a clear sight of goal by Andrei Semenov’s comical error and the finish was almost an afterthought. He sprinted straight to the touchline camera after finding the far corner of the net, only one person on his mind, and the emotions spilled out. “Chris, Chris, sterkte jongen [stay strong, boy], I love you,” Lukaku shouted while cupping the lens, a simple sentiment but one loaded with barely articulable meaning.

Had Toby Alderweireld or Jan Vertonghen, former teammates of Eriksen at Spurs, made a similar contribution the expression would undoubtedly have been similar. Nacer Chadli, an unused substitute, was another colleague in north London while Thomas Vermaelen was at Ajax when Eriksen came through the Amsterdam club’s academy. The squad had been watching Denmark against Finland on television before their pre-match meeting and tactics were the last thing they felt like discussing.

“There were a lot of tears before the game,” Lukaku said. “It was very difficult to focus for this match, also for Toby, Jan, Nacer. We all know him very well. I hope he gets well again; he has two young children, they need him and so do we as a team. I’m happy with the win but my thoughts are with Christian now.”

The victory itself was mercifully simple and, in the circumstances, Belgium will be mightily grateful. Russia barely asked a single question so Roberto Martínez’s team were able to pace themselves without coming anywhere near full pelt, a handy state of affairs given their injury worries and the schedule an ageing group will face if they are finally to match their billing this summer.

Above all it was testament to the excellence of Lukaku, who also ran through at the end of an otherwise barren second half to add Belgium’s third. He has now scored 22 times in his last 19 appearances for the Red Devils and has found the net on 40 occasions for club and country this season. There is no question: any discussion about the world’s best centre-forward has to include him at front and centre. It is handy for Belgium that he is in such electric form given Kevin De Bruyne’s recovery from a fractured eye socket is being taken slowly and Eden Hazard, a substitute here, is unlikely to be in optimal condition all tournament.

Neither of those creative maestros was needed to tee up his opener. Lukaku was offside, and knew it, when a harmless Dries Mertens delivery curled in his direction but Semenov allowed the ball to ricochet through his legs and rendered him active again. There was never much sign of a way back for Russia after that and Thomas Meunier capitalised on another error, a limp parry from Anton Shunin after Thorgan Hazard had crossed from the left, to convert a decisive second just after the half-hour.

Meunier had only just replaced Timothy Castagne, who Martínez revealed will miss the rest of the tournament after sustaining a similar injury to De Bruyne when he collided with Daler Kuzyaev. “The way he focused and contributed to the victory was a real example for us,” Martínez said of Meunier, and he will require more of that from the Borussia Dortmund right-back now.

With both of Lukaku’s contributions came the added satisfaction that those among the 32,000-strong home crowd who jeered Belgium’s pre-match taking of the knee had been silenced. Russia’s players had opted to stay on their feet. “It’s not a question related to football, if you have one please ask me one,” said their manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, when asked for his view of the fans’ response. What a shame. This was not much of a night for football conversation, in any case, although Belgium had made an early statement of their own.