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Romelu Lukaku

Now that's more like an €80m striker! Lethal Lukaku & Belgium silence critics

3:06 PM GMT 18/06/2016
Romelu Lukaku Belgium Republic of Ireland Euro 2016
The Everton striker was slated after his showing against Italy but he proved his class - and eased the pressure on Marc Wilmots - with two goals against Republic of Ireland


During a refreshingly friendly atmosphere outside the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Irish fans playfully taunted their rivals for the day. "Belgum's going home, they're going, Belgium's going home," they sang over and over again. However, by the end of the afternoon, it was clear that only one of the two nations is in danger of an early exit from Euro 2016.

Belgium were, at times, brilliant in Bordeaux, belying their bemusing showing against Italy in Lyon five days earlier. At various points during the second half, the Red Devils played like the second-best side in the world, shredding the Irish to pieces with their blistering pace on the break.

Martin O'Neill's men had done a decent job in containing Eden Hazard & Co. during a scoreless first half but the entire outcome of the game was effectively decided in a 30-second spell just after the interval when referee Cuneyt Cakir inexplicably failed to spot Toby Alderweireld's flying kick to Shane Long's barely lowered head. Unsurprisingly, the assistants offered no assistance and Belgium broke - to devastating effect.

Kevin De Bruyne, showing no effects of the injury that had threatened to rule him out of this must-win game for the Belgians, raced away down the right flank before feeding the ball infield to Lukaku, who was positioned on the edge of the area. The ambitious Everton attacker's composure had been conspicuous by its absence in the 2-0 loss to Italy on Monday. Here, though, he was coolness personified, as he calmly took a touch before precisely placing the ball in the bottom left corner.

Ireland are nothing if not game and they tried to raise theirs, throwing everything they had at Belgium for the next 10 minutes. Unfortunately, that didn't amount to much - and their hopes of turning the game around were effectively ended when Witsel surged into the Irish box and powered home Thomas Meunier's cross from the right-hand side.

By this stage, Belgium had the Irish right where they wanted them, burning them on the break at every possible opportunity. The killer third goal arrived in the 70th minute, with Hazard racing clear down the right wing before squaring to Lukaku, who appeared almost embarrassed by the ease with which he doubled his own personal tally with the most straight-forward of side-footed finishes.

Indeed, the former Chelsea striker barely celebrated but inside he must have been delirious, given he silenced the critics who had so gleefully slated him after a performance against Italy that had been both wasteful and ineffective.

There was vindication, too, though, for his coach. Not only had Mark Wilmots stuck with his under-fire No.9, he had also made a huge call in dropping Radja Nainggolan to the bench. The feeling persists that he got away with that one, as Moussa Dembele had not impressed before injury forced him off. However, after a week in which his control over the dressing room had been queried, he had every reason to be satisfied at the full-time whistle.

Just like Lukaku, Wilmots had silenced his critics. For now. Tougher tests lie in wait for Lukaku and Belgium than Ciaran Clark and Ireland, respectively but still, at least they're not going home.