ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA (AP) — Romelu Lukaku’s first thought after scoring at the European Championship wasn’t to celebrate with his Belgium teammates.
Instead, the striker wanted to send a heartfelt message to a close friend who was in the hospital.
“Chris. Strength, boy. Love you,” Lukaku said straight into a TV camera at Saint Petersburg Stadium in a mixture of English and Dutch, his touching words directed at Denmark player Christian Eriksen.
Lukaku had taken the field in Belgium’s 3-0 win over Russia on Saturday only a short time after seeing Eriksen, his teammate at Italian champion Inter Milan, fall to the ground and require urgent medical attention during Denmark’s game against Finland in Copenhagen.
Lukaku was watching the match wit h the rest of the Belgium squad. He said he cried. “I was scared, obviously,” he said. “You live strong moments together. I spent more time with him than with my family.”
Lukaku said it had been “difficult to play because my mind was with” Eriksen.
“I hope he is healthy,” he added, “and I dedicate this performance to him.”
The former Manchester United striker didn’t just stop at one goal against Russia. By slotting home a second in the 88th minute, Lukaku made it 62 goals in 93 international appearances and wrapped up a comfortable victory that validated top-ranked Belgium’s status as one of the favourites at Euro 2020.
It was all the more impressive given the Belgians were without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who wasn’t deemed ready after a minor operation on a fractured nose and eye socket, and with captain Eden Hazard only playing the final 19 minutes as a substitute.
Belgium also had to deal with the withdrawal of right wing back Timothy Castagne in the 26th minute after he clashed heads with Russia midfielder Daler Kuzyaev. Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said Castagne had sustained a double fracture of his eye socket and has been ruled out of the rest of the tournament.
Castagne’s replacement, Thomas Meunier, scored Belgium’s second goal in the 34th minute.
“We looked like a team that was very concentrated for 90 minutes,” Martinez said. “The win will allow us to grow into the tournament as a team.”
While the win was hardly unexpected — Russia lost to Belgium home and away in qualifying — the ease with which the Belgians swept aside the home team was surprising.
Up to Lukaku’s opening goal in the 10th minute, it had been a celebratory atmosphere among the heavily pro-Russian crowd of 26,264 spectators. Aside, that is, from just before kickoff when there were loud jeers around the stadium as Belgium’s players took a knee.
Music was played while the gesture against racism was taking place, but the boos were still audible.
Lacking his ideal supporting cast, Lukaku still managed to score in each half, though he was given a helping hand by Russia’s defence.
Andrei Semenov was at fault for the first goal, miskicking while attempting to clear a cross from the right. The ball fell loose in the area and Lukaku pounced, finding the corner with a low finish.
Another mistake, this time by goalkeeper Anton Shunin, allowed Meunier to double the lead. Thorgan Hazard’s in-swinging cross was parried weakly by Shunin and Meunier slid his shot from the rebound into an unguarded net.
Kuzyaev initially played on after his clash with Castagne but went off himself a few minutes later, the first of five substitutions — the maximum allotted — made by Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov by the 63rd minute.
Belgium centre back Jan Vertonghen also went off with an apparent leg injury in the second half but Martinez said it wasn’t serious.