Romelu Lukaku has described Belgium’s defeat by Italy as a reality check and insisted Marc Wilmots’ collection of gifted individuals will become a major team on the international stage only by learning from such setbacks.
Lukaku and Belgium made a subdued start to the tournament and flattered to deceive in losing 2-0 to Antonio Conte’s well-drilled side on Monday. Wilmots, booed for his substitutions and at full-time by a massed Belgium support at the Stade de Lyon, singled out the Everton striker and Kevin De Bruyne for their poor displays against Italy before claiming “now is not the time to criticise individuals”.
Lukaku, who lost his starting place to the Liverpool striker Divock Origi as the last World Cup progressed, claimed the defeat would concentrate the minds of a Belgium team that may have been carried away by pre-tournament expectations.
“We have both feet on the ground now,” said the forward. “We know what we have to do now. A lot of people were talking before the tournament about what we can do but we had a reality check against Italy and sometimes that’s good to know you still have a long way to go. We played against a team that is known for being tactically very strong, very efficient and that’s what we have to learn. If you want to become a big nation sometimes you have to deal with setbacks. We have to move on, become stronger, work even harder than we did, play well and win the games.”
The Everton striker was guilty of a glaring miss when played through on goal by De Bruyne and Origi also wasted a decent chance to equalise Emanuele Giaccherini’s opener before Graziano Pellè sealed Italy’s win in stoppage time. Lukaku said: “It’s a bad start. It was very difficult against a team that is really smart tactically, with the two strikers up front and runners in midfield, but you have to stay positive and work hard. We have a good team, we have a lot of qualities but you have to be clinical in those type of games because you don’t get a lot of chances and we weren’t. They were and scored their chances. It’s all about goals in football. You have to score to win games. They did that, we didn’t.”
Conte insisted after the game that Belgium remained one of the favourites for the European Championships in Paris on 10 July. “This result in no way diminishes Belgium’s chances of winning the competition – they are a terrific side,” Italy’s coach said.
Lukaku believes Saturday’s second game against the Republic of Ireland in Bordeaux has become a must-win for Wilmots’ team. “We have to win against Ireland now and we have to play good football as well,” said the 23-year-old. “Ireland has a good team. Defensively they’re very good and up front they have players who can make a difference. They’ve got a lot of experience with Robbie Keane and Shane Long and [James] McClean from the left can make a difference so it’s going to be difficult and we have to be wary of that.”
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