Three minutes before half-time, Romelu Lukaku turned in the centre-circle and made another arcing run. He had been making them all half, and would go on making them, but had touched the ball only nine times, less than half as many as any other outfielder. This time, though, the ball arrived, via Thorgan Hazard’s clip over the top, and he was able to hold off Rúben Dias and gather. For pretty much the first time in the game, Belgium had the ball in a dangerous area and Portugal were not set.
Lukaku held it up and, although Kevin De Bruyne lost possession, the lack of Portuguese organisation meant when the ball broke to Hazard he had time to line up a shot. It was not a goal for Lukaku, nor an assist. There will be statistical models that mark him down for the pass to De Bruyne that led to the ball briefly being lost. But he was critical to the goal. Playing as a striker is supposed to be about glory, but it’s about a whole lot more.
Between them, Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo scored 53 goals in Serie A last season. There was a sense in which this was about their rivalry, both in terms of a direct battle for the Golden Boot at this tournament and a clash of their different interpretations of what it is to be a modern centre-forward. At the final whistle the pair embraced, Lukaku consoling the fallen champion.
As he has aged, Ronaldo has become a harder and harder footballer to categorise. That he has moved from tricksy winger to old-school No 9, made the full journey from Stanley Matthews to Tommy Lawton, is an appealing shorthand, but it is not quite the full story. At 36, of course he cannot hare about as he once did, but equally, as his goal against Germany showed, he is still capable of bursts of explosive pace.
He is more of a penalty box player now than he was, and the most extraordinary of his many remarkable attributes is now his strength and athleticism, particularly when heading the ball, rather than the mesmerising blur of his rapid feet. The temptation is to set him in opposition to Lukaku, the ageing and individualistic goal machine against the complete forward, the striker coming into his pomp who combines a target-man’s build with extreme speed and the tactical brain of a schemer.
But the picture is not so straightforward as that. In fact, the picture is not straightforward at all. Ronaldo was top scorer in Serie A with 29 goals; Lukaku second with 24 (Lukaku was on the pitch for 82 minutes longer; both played just under 50 hours). There is an easy assumption that Ronaldo these days spends his time hanging around the opposing box, waiting for chances to be delivered but it is not exactly true. He actually attempted 1,086 passes to Lukaku’s 765 last season, despite registering just two assists to Lukaku’s 11. Given he also shot roughly 50% more than Lukaku, from an average of more than 4m further out, perhaps that says nothing more than that, in Lautaro Martínez, Lukaku had a productive partner in a way that Ronaldo did not.
At this tournament, though, Ronaldo’s contribution beyond his goals has far outweighed his goals: in the group stage he completed 79 of 97 passes; Lukaku 34 of 50, and effected 13 successful pressures to Lukaku’s two. The sample size, of course, is tiny, and Lukaku’s figures skewed by a tepid final group game against Finland but the indications are that Ronaldo, perhaps because of the system, is more engaged for Portugal than for Juventus.
And then there is the fact that much of what Lukaku does is not picked up by simple analysis. Ronaldo is a very visible footballer; he has pared his game back to a handful of key actions. He remains superb at them – as his run off the right and pass to Diogo Jota 12 minutes after the break demonstrated. But the tireless working of the channels that characterised Lukaku’s performance does not come easily to Ronaldo these days, and although he worked manfully, too often there was no support and he was swamped by the geriatric Belgian back three, with their combined age of 101.
His only meaningful chances were a pair of free-kicks. There was the familiar theatre of the buildup, the puff of the cheeks, the adoption of the Tory power stance, the knuckleball technique and, although the shots were on target, the familiar result as, first, Thibaut Courtois dived to his right to save, and the second struck the screening wall of Portugal players he had himself organised. Ronaldo has had a direct shot on goal with each of his last 51 free-kicks in international tournaments; only one has gone in. But then, who in this Portugal side is going to take a set-play off him? (Lukaku’s free-kick seven minutes from time was no better).
But work as he did, Ronaldo could not shape this game to his will – and the sense is that he is so dominant in this side that if he does not, nobody else will; Bruno Fernandes, for instance so dominant at Manchester United, is a diminished figure with his country. This will surely be the last we see of him in a European Championship.
Lukaku, meanwhile, selfless and tireless, marches on, perhaps to the Golden Boot.