Belgium are out of the World Cup. Given the talent available to Roberto Martinez and what came before, they’re perhaps also out with a bit of a whimper. France showed themselves to be disciplined and organised this evening, in possession of a lethal counter-attack too, but most will conclude that Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and the rest should have made more of an impression than they ultimately did.
A semi-final is no poor return, but under the circumstances it’s still less than it might have been. No Germany, no Spain; this was an opportunity wasted and, for the older members of the squad, a final chance gone.
In the coming days, Romelu Lukaku will draw some flak. He also had a fallow night in St Petersburg and, unfortunately, that will feed the lasting perception that he isn’t really the right centre-forward for the big games. That ignores that he didn’t really have a kick in anger against the French and that much of Didier Deschamps gameplan seemed aimed at marginalising him, but it’s habit now – Lukaku is just one of those players who people reflexively criticise.
It’s a shame, because he’s had an excellent tournament. Not necessarily in terms of his goalscoring, which was more than adequate, but his all-round performances, which have cast him as broadening and evolving player. He’ll probably always be a slightly hit-and-miss striker, one whose form is starkly binary, but that issue obscures the rapid development of his supplementary attributes. As anyone watching will surely know, this was the World Cup when he showed just how much finer his first touch has become and, quite unexpectedly, what an unselfish and smart off-the-ball runner he can be.
Yes, there has been evidence of that before, but rarely in such a vibrant way. Both Nacer Chadli’s goal against the Japanese and Kevin De Bruyne’s tracer bullet against the Brazilians owed huge debts to Lukaku and, although none of us are quite in domestic football mode just yet, you do wonder just how Manchester United may benefit from this growing influence.
It’s not correct to say that Jose Mourinho only uses Lukaku as a targetman. Clearly not, because he’s frequently to be found in the channels and at no point has he been a static centre-forward. Nevertheless, to see him in Russia was to watch a player capable of shifting his team’s gears – by picking up the ball in deeper positions and surging past defenders – and it’s just too tempting to wonder whether that energy can be captured and used to make United a little more forceful. They’re not a bad team – they finished second in the Premier League and reached an FA Cup final, after all – but they are one which often struggles for rhythm and is capable of being frustratingly passive.
The how and why of this is Mourinho’s job and the signings which have been (and will be) made will no doubt foster an improvement. Nevertheless, United are clearly not extracting the most valuable possible out of Lukaku. His goal-return was fine, if a little patchy, but he can be such a problem for defenders in so many ways that you have to believe United could find ways of using him which caused more fractures in their opposition.