Belgium face Portugal in the last 16 of Euro 2020 on Sunday night, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku looking to settle the tie for their respective sides.
While Lukaku appears to be in his prime after a huge improvement in his record since his arrival in Italy with Inter Milan, Ronaldo may be in his last ever major international tournament, if not his penultimate tournament.
Ronaldo is 36 now, and will be 38 when the World Cup rolls into Qatar in the winter of 2022. There is no guarantee that - even for a player as professional and committed to his legacy as Ronaldo - he will be capable of holding down a place as the squad’s premier forward. This is his last certain chance to add to his scoring record for the national side and given the difficulties experienced by some of the pre-tournament favourites, he may even think he has a chance of coming back with another European Championship winners’ medal.
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However, he already has five goals to his name. Should he manage to reach the quarter-finals then he will have a strong chance to get enough goals to at least come away with a golden boot award, to add to the 109 goals in 178 appearances he already has for his country. His club future also remains unclear, meaning that there is no certainty that he will be moving onto a side that can help him win more trophies, score more goals, or keep him in the required form to continue with Portugal. Ronaldo often plays with an apparent desperation on the pitch, and that may become more acute as time runs out in the knockout against Belgium.
While Ronaldo holds onto something like his best, Lukaku appears to be raising the bar on his potential. He started well at Manchester United, but injuries and a general sluggishness suggested that he had played too much football too soon, and had lost his way. Instead, the move to Inter has given him fresh impetus and focus. Before his switch to play under Antonio Conte he had never scored more than 27 goals in a season, and in his second and final year at Old Trafford, he managed just 15. He has 64 since rocking up in Serie A, one more than his total record for Belgium,
However, as Deji Odedina pointed out on Eurosport’s The Beautiful Game podcast, Belgium must hope for the best from their attack as their defence looks well past its best.
“Five goals for Cristiano Ronaldo, three for Romelu Lukaku , Ronaldo’s equalled [Ali] Daei’s record at European Championship football,” he began.
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“It’s an interesting one. Portugal had an acid test of France, Germany. Belgium have coasted through the group stages I would say, apart from that little hiccup against Denmark when they went behind, and Kevin De Bruyne came on to do his stuff.
“I look at them as a team of two halves, almost. Great going forward, defensively they have a lot of players coming towards the end of their careers: Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen. I almost think if you mesh that up against Diogo Jota, Bruno Fernandes, it can be dangerous. If I could make a prediction on the game, it’s a tough one.
“Portugal will go through .That’s my gut feeling.”
Dotun Abijoh, meanwhile, took the opposite view. He sees their ageing defence as a factor that means they have to go all-in on success without entertaining the ideal of failure, and with Lukaku in career-best form, they have a chance.
“That would be a nightmare for Belgium,” he said of a potential exit at the hands of Portugal.
“I think that would be a nightmare for Roberto Martinez, he would be under serious pressure. For me Belgium has to go to the semi-finals, minimum. They have all the players. This is their golden era. They probably have one more tournament with a big push but I think Big Rom, what a striker, he’s just rolling everyone.
“You can argue that outside of Lewandowski these are probably one of the best two goalscorers in the world. It’s going to be an interesting watch. I think it’s going to be quite tight. I think Belgium will probably just nick it, if I’m being honest.”
Whichever team goes through tomorrow night, it is clear that Ronaldo and Romelu could have the deciding say.
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