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Belgium head into the 2022 World Cup under pressure to shake off years of low key performances at major tournaments under Roberto Martinez.
A semi-final place at the 2018 World Cup, and a last-eight exit at Euro 2020, did not justify the hype surrounding Martinez’s squad, and he faces another headache ahead of their campaign opener in Qatar.
Star striker Romelu Lukaku will miss the Red Devils’ first two games in Group F, against Canada and Morocco, after failing to overcome an ongoing thigh problem.
Lukaku’s absence adds to the list of big-name attackers struggling for fitness in the Middle East, with France striker Karim Benzema forced to withdraw from Les Bleus’ squad due to injury.
Lukaku’s return to Inter Milan on loan from Chelsea has not gone to plan for the 29-year-old in the opening weeks of the 2022/23 campaign.
Persistent injury issues have reduced his impact at the San Siro, completing 90 minutes just once in Serie A, and he has not featured for Simone Inzaghi’s side since October 29, after straining his thigh in training.
That issue put his World Cup chances in jeopardy, but Martinez kept faith with his top scorer from World Cup qualifying. However, his risky call could now backfire on the former Everton boss.
MORE: World Cup injuries 2022 tracker: List of players who could miss out in Qatar as France lose Benzema
Will Romelu Lukaku play vs. Canada?
Widespread reports claim Lukaku is certain to miss Belgium’s group opener against John Herdman’s Canada in Al Rayyan on November 23.
Belgium have been carefully managing the imposing centre-forward’s recovery after joining up with the squad, with Martinez working closely with his medical team.
MORE: Messi & Ronaldo: Destination Mundial
Who could replace Lukaku at forward?
Lukaku was the main man for Belgium in qualifying, with five goals across just four appearances, including a key equaliser against the Czech Republic.
His all round game makes him the ideal candidate to play in a three-man attack alongside Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
Martinez has experimented with utilising him on the left of that system, with De Bruyne as a false No.9, but he will need to rethink his plans.
Lukaku’s injury issues allowed Martinez to test other options during their 2022/23 UEFA Nations League games, with in-form Fenerbahce star Michy Batshuayi starting five straight games.
Batshuayi netted twice during that run, and the former Chelsea attacker is the most logical replacement for Lukaku, with Martinez preferring to keep Hazard out wide and Dries Mertens as an impact substitute.
Will Belgium replace Lukaku?
Martinez will continue to monitor the situation and FIFA rules state he has until Monday to call up a replacement for Lukaku in his 26-man squad if he decides against retaining him in Qatar.
The likelihood appears to be on Lukaku staying with the squad, to avoid last-minute disruption, as a replacement would have incredibly limited time to get up to speed.
However, it is a possibility that Lukaku will not appear until the knockout stage, if Belgium make it out of Group F.
Romelu Lukaku Belgium goals
Lukaku is the top scorer in Belgium national team history, with 68 goals, more than double that of Hazard, on 33.
His form in qualification underlined his importance to Martinez but Batshuayi and De Bruyne are the players in form ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
Batshuayi has netted three goals for Belgium in the last six months, with De Bruyne scoring twice.