Belgium v Italy: Lukaku has Azzurri in his sights after Italian rebirth

By Sports Desk July 02, 2021

Romelu Lukaku has found a home in Milan after firing Inter to their first Serie A title since 2009-10 and is a player reborn.

Now it's time to annoy the neighbours.

"Yes, I am staying," Lukaku told VTM at the start of this month, amid speculation over his future after the departure of head coach Antonio Conte.

"I feel good at Inter. "I've already had contact with [incoming head coach Simone Inzaghi]. Maybe I shouldn't say that yet … but it was a very positive conversation. There’s also the challenge of doing it again [winning the Scudetto]."

Those clubs reportedly keen on changing Lukaku's mind over just how settled he is at San Siro have been given fresh reasons to try over the past few weeks, with the 28-year-old in superb form to haul Belgium into a Euro 2020 quarter-final against Italy on Friday.

When the sides met at Euro 2016 and Italy prevailed 2-0 in a group-stage encounter, Lukaku was substituted after 73 minutes with the game on the line.

Consider the centre-forward's herculean efforts in single-handedly and tirelessly trying to drive Portugal back as Belgium hung on to a 1-0 win over the reigning champions in the last-16 and it is impossible not to imagine him sweat-soaked in the middle of the field when the final whistle goes this time.

 

The Conte factor

Conte was Italy head coach that day in Lyon and he took an unfancied Azzurri to a penalty shoot-out defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals

That subsequent Premier League was promptly won by Conte, freshly installed at Chelsea. He tried to bolster their title defence by signing Lukaku from Everton, but the player's decision to join Manchester United left the combustible tactician in a fury that never completely lifted before his exit as an FA Cup winner at the end of 2017-18.

Lukaku finished that campaign with what was then a career best 27 goals in all competitions for United, but the following season became a struggle as Jose Mourinho departed and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived.

It was time for pastures new in 2019-20 and there was a serendipity to Conte ending a 12-month sabbatical to take the reins at Inter, aiming to bring down the Juventus dynasty he launched almost a decade earlier.

He got his man this time and Lukaku has blossomed.

In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport before the St Petersburg quarter-final, Conte described the striker as a "force of nature" and he told L'Equipe: "Romelu, today, is one of the best strikers in the world.

"He always had immense physical and athletic qualities, but during the past two years together we have seen him grow even more in terms of presence on the pitch, teamwork, and composure in front of goal.”

Across all competitions in 2019-20, Lukaku scored 34 goals – the most prolific season of his career, which he backed up with 30 last time around. His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes figure in 2020-21 was 0.76, another career best that indicates he is getting into better scoring positions and benefitting from a higher quality of chances. A shot conversion rate of 24 per cent at Inter also sees Lukaku breaking new ground.

 

The all-round development Conte alludes to is also clear. The 70 and 63 chances created in each of his Inter seasons again outstrip anything he has previously posted by that metric, yielding a personal best 11 assists last term.

Lukaku has also relocated his destructive capacity when it comes to running at defences with the ball, something that dwindled significantly at United.

Only in 2014-15 with Everton (145) did he attempt more dribbles than his 125 at Inter last season, while he never posted three figures at Old Trafford, slumping to a career-low 58 in 2018-19.

Familiar foes

Given Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard remain injury doubts, Lukaku's capacity to create for team-mates and himself might be crucial against an Italy defence that were breached for the first time in 19 hours and 28 minutes in their extra-time win over Austria.

Italy number one Gianluigi Donnarumma might not be too keen on the sight of the opposition number nine, given Lukaku's five goals against Milan in all competitions. Genoa (six) are the only Serie A side he has scored against more often.

Where Donnarumma might find reassurance is in the Juventus axis of Leonardo Bonucci and the fit-again Giorgio Chiellini in front of him.

 

While the veteran central-defensive pair's relative lack of pace means too many instances of the rampant, dribbling Lukaku that has re-emerged at Inter might spell disaster for Italy, the hitman's sparse record versus Juve suggests they know a thing or two about stopping him.

In five matches against the Old Lady for Inter, Lukaku has scored once from nine shots with an xG value of 1.4, a conversion rate of 11.1 per cent.

Contrast that with his record in the Derby della Madonnina, where his five goals have come from 24 shots (xG 5.2, 20.8 per cent conversion).

Such a record meant Lukaku was happy to proclaiming himself "King of Milano" after the Scudetto was secured, in a mocking dig at Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If he can slay the country where he has enjoyed an incredible rebirth, he will take a giant step towards being crowned king of Europe.

Related items

  • French Open: Tsitsipas through against "complete player" Kolar French Open: Tsitsipas through against "complete player" Kolar

    Stefanos Tsitsipas called Zdenek Kolar a "complete player", despite ultimately defeating his Czech opponent in the second round of the French Open.

    Tsitsipas was relatively untroubled in the first set, but was made to work for the win after that as he and Kolar exchanged one tie-break each before the number four seed finally secured victory with another tie-break in the fourth set, sealing it 6-3 7-6 (10-8) 6-7 (3-7) 7-6 (9-7).

    Kolar is ranked 134th in the world but looked every bit a threat to Tsitsipas on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, hitting 57 winners and succeeding with 29 of 37 net points (78 per cent).

    Speaking at a news conference after his win, Tsitsipas explained the difficulties he experienced, saying: "He's someone I knew a little bit. It's never easy playing guys that don't really play on the ATP Tour. You don't really know what to expect. I guess they play more free.

    "It's always like this. They really have a nothing-to-lose mentality. It's a different mentality than what we have, I think, which sometimes can really be brutal on the court and create some good tennis.

    "He was really pushing a lot today, getting after every ball. His body was behind every ball. Running fast, reacting fast. Good net game. Complete player, I would say. Yeah, it wasn't easy out there to face him and come up with some good solutions."

    Tsitsipas - who hit 25 aces - displayed some of his oft-seen frustration as he struggled to stay on top of his opponent, and was asked if his hardest obstacle was Kolar or himself.

    "I guess both today," he said. "I had a lot of opportunities, break points, playing quite well, staying within the game. He was coming up with some really good ideas and I think dealt with all of the situations so maturely, not overexaggerating anything. He's an intelligent player, I would say.

    "Look, last year there were moments where it was about me and the way I deal with situations on the court, not focusing that much on who is on the other side. It's all about perspective. It's sometimes good to focus on what you are doing, but also if you're not feeling great, you have to see the other side too."

    Having rallied from two sets down to beat Lorenzo Musetti in the first round, and now being made to work hard by Kolar, Tsitsipas will now face Mikael Ymer after the Swede beat 29th seed Dan Evans on Thursday.

  • Pelicans star Zion Williamson cleared to return without any restrictions Pelicans star Zion Williamson cleared to return without any restrictions

    Zion Williamson has been cleared to return to play without any restrictions.

    The New Orleans Pelicans star did not play a single game this season due to a foot fracture as his team reached the playoffs through the play-in tournament, before losing 4-2 to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.

    Williamson has been troubled by fitness issues throughout his NBA career, and the former first overall pick returned to full team activities in late November, only to suffer further setbacks.

    However, the Pelicans confirmed on Thursday that the 21-year-old is finally able to return without restrictions, saying via a statement: "The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that recent imaging of Zion Williamson's right fifth metatarsal showed continued improvement.

    "Williamson has been cleared in his return to play progression without any restrictions."

    In the 2020-21 season, Williamson averaged 27.0 points and 7.2 rebounds from 61 games, and scored more than 20 in each of his last 15 games before getting injured just over a year ago.

    Williamson is eligible for a five-year, $181million max rookie extension ahead of the 2022-23 season, and he will not think twice if that offer comes from the Pelicans, recently saying: "Of course, I couldn't sign it fast enough."

  • French Open: Swiatek not keeping track of outstanding 30-match winning run French Open: Swiatek not keeping track of outstanding 30-match winning run

    Only the understandable media attention is allowing Iga Swiatek to keep count of her incredible winning run that reached 30 matches on Thursday.

    The world number one sealed her place in the third round of the French Open after a dominant 6-0 6-2 win against Alison Riske.

    That victory made her just the fourth WTA Tour player this century to win 30 or more consecutive matches. She has also taken 46 of the past 47 sets she has played.

    Speaking at a news conference following her milestone win, Swiatek insisted she does not follow the numbers – although she has no need to while her streak remains the focus of journalists.

    "I know how many matches I have won in a row because you keep reminding me, basically," she said. "But I don't keep track.

    "I'm not like noting or something. I just try to come back to these matches to get experience from them. But that's the only reason why I come back to them."

    Swiatek was asked to explain what had inspired her imperious form, with her 39 match victories in 2022 already three more than she managed in the whole of 2021.

    "I think basically I changed some things, like I started being more aggressive and trying to be more proactive on court," she replied. "That's something that my coach really helped me to do.

    "But also, I think all the work we have been doing, even last season, it finally clicked somehow.

    "You know, last season it was a year for me where I really gained so much experience. This year I feel like I'm using it the right way. I have this experience already, and I can just move forward.

    "So I think it's the physical work I have been doing but also with my psychologist, I think it's the work of the whole team as well. I'm pretty glad that it clicks right now."

    The 20-year-old conceded her form will not last forever, but she is determined to enjoy it while it lasts.

    "I was saying from the beginning that for sure I'm going to reach a point where I'm going to lose a match, and it's pretty normal, you know," Swiatek said. "I have been losing matches in tennis for a long time.

    "For sure, the things we are doing right now are pretty extraordinary, but I know in tennis that only one person wins at the end. I will be okay with that.

    "For sure, it's not fun to lose, but I think it wouldn't be different than any other loss that I had in my career."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.