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'With pressure on, De Bruyne delivers a masterclass'

Kevin de Bruyne's status as one of Belgium's "Golden Generation" and the enduring quality he delivers at elite level was underlined once more on a thrilling, colourful night in Cologne.

Belgium carry scars from previous major tournaments when they fell short of expectations raised by the world-class talent at their disposal - most notably when they failed to make it to the knockout phase of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

And the old accusations were being dusted off once more after they slipped to defeat in their opening group game of Euro 2024 against Slovakia, ranked 45th in the world.

This tournament's format has removed some of the jeopardy from the group stage, giving Belgium room for manoeuvre after that shock loss, and they knew a victory against Romania was essential.

It was against this backdrop, and with the pressure on, that De Bruyne delivered a masterclass deservedly crowned with the goal that wrapped up a 2-0 win and gave Belgium's campaign lift-off.

The responsibility carried by De Bruyne was emphasised when the massed ranks of red-clad Belgium supporters rose to the Manchester City midfielder when he came out to warm up. It was a night when he was being counted on.

If Youri Tielemans settled early nerves by driving low past Romania keeper Florin Nita after 73 seconds, it was 32-year-old De Bruyne who ensured Belgium were dominant throughout.

The stadium was awash with colour and rocking to deafening noise well before kick-off - and a game befitting the magnificent atmosphere unfolded.

Cologne was decorated in red and yellow all day, a message on the big screens from the great "Maradona of the Carpathians" Gheorghe Hagi shown on the big screens before kick-off taking the massed ranks of Romania fans to boiling point.

The match was wild, open, fiercely contested and with De Bruyne rising above all others.

The space afforded by the nature of the game gave Belgium's playmaker room to operate. It was an opportunity he was not going to pass up.

De Bruyne set the tone with one slaloming first-half run that left Romanian players trailing in his wake and Dodi Lukebakio just unable to take advantage.

If the action was frantic, De Bruyne had the quality and composure to make it look like he had more time on the ball than anyone else - particularly in a devastating second half.

He brought a fine save from Nita, flashed a cross into the six-yard area, then delivered a sumptuous pass of imagination and vision, cutting the Romania defence apart for Romelu Lukaku to apply a composed finish.

Inevitably, given Lukaku's luck so far at Euro 2024, the Video Assistant Referee adjudged a hair's-breadth offside and the tireless striker's hunt for his first goal of the tournament goes on.

No matter for De Bruyne.

He was not to be denied and got the goal his performance deserved when he shrugged off the attentions of the Romania defence to poke a finish past Nita with 11 minutes left.

Belgium's win was fully merited. They played with intensity, verve and threat once Tielemans had struck, illustrating why they are ranked third in the world and remain touted as one of this tournament's winners.

The blow of losing to Slovakia had been overcome to leave Group E on a knife edge, with all four teams on three points going into the final round of games for the first time in the history of the European Championship.

Belgium's performance signalled their official arrival at Euro 2024 but it was the display of De Bruyne that was most eye-catching, the sheer quality of his contributions giving the lie to some whispered suggestions he might be on the wane, with talk of a move to Saudi Arabia.

De Bruyne played in a manner designed to elevate Belgium's self-belief before their final group game against Ukraine - and they must back up this win rather than return to old ways.

It was another tough night for Lukaku, who was never short of endeavour but was lacking in good fortune when it mattered.

The manner in which he finished his disallowed goal at least hinted at better things to come, while the reaction of this team-mates showed how desperate they are for him to break his duck.

No such worries for De Bruyne. He is the class act who showed why he carries Belgium's hopes of going deep into Euro 2024.