Romelu Lukaku has attributed his fine form for Belgium in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying to the scholarship of Roberto Martinez. The 23-year-old played under the Spaniard for Everton for three years until May.
Lukaku was disappointed to score just one goal at Brazil 2014 – the winner in a thrilling 2-1 extra-time victory over USA in the Round of 16 – and in just one game at UEFA EURO 2016. Since Martinez replaced Marc Wilmots at the Belgium reins, however, the hulking striker has netted five goals in three preliminaries on the road to Russia.
“Since he came I’ve only played good matches,” Lukaku, who has posted 19 goals in 54 internationals, told Sport/Voetbalmagazine. “He has, so to speak, freed me from prison.
"I know what he expects of me, where and how to go. Today everyone knows his role with the Red Devils. A player on the ball has five, six options, especially in this 3-4-3. At Anderlecht we played like this at youth level. Sometimes it feels like I’m back playing as a kid, with all these options.”
Lukaku revealed he was already a fan of Martinez before they worked together at Goodison Park. The Antwerp native was at Chelsea and on loan at West Bromwich Albion while the 43-year-old managed Wigan Athletic, whom he guided to a stunning victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup final.
“Despite Wigan’s lack of results, Martinez’s reputation in the game was one of the best in the Premier League,” said Lukaku. “I quickly understood that I needed a coach like him to improve.
“He told me, ‘I know you’re strong with 70 metres of space in front of you, that no-one can stop you because you’re so fast and so strong, but can you also make a difference in the final 30 metres against a congested defence? Can you create space for yourself? Well, I’m going to help you with this.”
Lukaku believes previous criticism he received from the Belgium supporters was undeserved, and that others – including Yannick Carrasco, Kevin De Bruye and Eden Hazard – have also come into their own under Martinez.
“Because I became a professional at a very young age, many people still [judge me] on how I was in Belgian football and have not seen how I have since evolved,” said the son of former Congo DR forward Roger Lukaku. “With the national team I hadn’t played as well, but still well.
“But under Martinez I have only put in good performances. And this is not just the case for me but also for Eden, Kevin, [Thomas] Meunier, Carrasco, [Laurent] Ciman.”
Belgium lead Group H in Russia 2018 qualifying, two points above Greece and five clear of third-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Only Brazil (20), Germany (18), Italy (18), Argentina (16), Mexico (15), England (14), France (14) and Spain (14) have participated in more World Cups than Belgium (12). Their best performance came in 1986, when Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo and Co edged Soviet Union 4-3 after extra time in the Round of 16 in one of the competition’s greatest-ever matches. *Les Diables Rouges *then eliminated Spain on penalties before losing to a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina in the semi-finals.