Romelu Lukaku believes Belgium will face “the best team in the tournament” when they encounter Brazil on Friday but says the Red Devils have the quality to send them crashing out.
The Manchester United striker has scored four goals at Russia 2018 and mixed them with some more delicate moments, such as the sublime dummy that set up Nacer Chadli’s winner against Japan, too. Belgium look a thrilling proposition in attack and Lukaku knows the match in Kazan will provide them with an indication of just how far they have come.
“The system we’ve been using has been in place for two years and we’ve improved as individuals,” Lukaku said in a prematch news conference. “Tomorrow [we] will be put to the test because we are going to play against best team in the tournament, the favourite. So for us, it’s certainly going to be a good test to see where we stand as a team.”
Lukaku was asked for his views on Neymar, and specifically whether he believed the Brazil forward was an “actor” after his controversial reactions to challenges in the games with Serbia and Mexico.
“No. For me, he is not an actor,” the former Chelsea man said. “The players who play against him are tough. I think he in the future will be the best player in the world and I’m very happy that I’ll be going against him for a second time.”
Belgium are considered underdogs against the five-time champions, who have purred through the tournament so far, but Lukaku says that does not mean they can play without the handbrake.
“I think we are always playing with a lot of pressure even if we are seen as underdogs,” he said. “I think we will have to savour the game and do as much as we can for our country.”
A stingy Brazil team has only conceded once in the tournament and Lukaku said it is hard to find weaknesses. However, Lukaku stressed that they can be picked apart and seemingly singled out right-back Fagner, who will be winning only his eighth cap, as a potential point to exploit.
“Weakness in Brazil? Not really,” he said. “[But] I think offensively that we are really strong. We have four players who can make the difference. Box-to-box people who can make the difference.
“I believe defensively they can be taken, but the way in which you do it will have to vary. You can’t attack in the usual way. Three of the four are really experienced defenders so you have to know how to attack. We’ve trained for that yesterday so we are really well-prepared.”
Manager Roberto Martinez believes Belgium are as ready as they’ll ever be to face Brazil, though he admitted his side will not be favourites to advance.
“It is a big occasion, you cannot hide it, if you try and hide it you are a little bit of a stupid person,” the Spanish coach said.
“But we’ve been working so hard to get ourselves to this occasion. We’ve grown into the tournament. There is something really special about this squad.
“The signs, they’ve been positive. There’s a real desire to be on the football pitch, we can’t wait to be there so I feel we are as ready as we’ll ever be.”
The match, between two sides rich with world-class attacking talent, should be close but Martinez said one significant factor set Brazil apart.
“The difference is that we haven’t won a World cup, it’s as simple as that,” he added.
“When you go into a tournament and you haven’t got the know-how of winning a tournament you cannot have an advantage over the opponent.
“Brazil know how to win World Cups, they’ve done it more than any other country so they’ve got that psychological barrier out of the way. We need to respect them because of what they have achieved.”
That respect was evident in the Spaniard’s every utterance on Thursday but, while acknowledging the dangers presented by Brazil forward Neymar, Martinez was confident the skills of the likes of Eden Hazard would also be influential for Belgium.
“I think the individual talent is quite a big weapon for both teams,” he said.
“We rely on one-versus-one situations, we both rely on scoring goals, we rely on open-play football, we don’t rely on keeping clean sheets or trying to be defensively strong.
“Neymar is one of the biggest exponents of… decisive one-versus-one situations, so we’ll have to keep an eye on him and allow our players to have a bigger role in the game.”
Martinez, who brushed aside a question linking him with the Spain managerial job, said one thing he would not have to do on Friday was find a way to motivate his team.
“When you are in a World Cup quarterfinal facing Brazil, you don’t need extra motivation.”