By Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Romelu Lukaku's second-half strike helped Belgium salvage a 1-1 draw against the Czech Republic on Saturday in an entertaining World Cup qualifier in which both sides were denied by the woodwork a number of times.
Lukas Provod gave the home side the lead with his first international goal just after the break when he gathered the ball in space and sent a long-range, right-footed strike past Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois.
But Lukaku levelled in the 60th minute when he turned defender Ondrej Celustka and sent a shot that deflected off the keeper's right leg into the net.
The draw left Belgium, who reached the semi-finals at the last World Cup in 2018, and the Czechs level on four points at the top of Group E after two games.
It was a disappointing evening, however, for Belgium boss Roberto Martinez, who said his team fell below their usual high standards.
"We obviously faced a team that has got a lot of momentum, as the team is in a really good, positive winning feeling," he said. "I don't think we've been in our normal level."
Czech goal scorer Provod said the aim was to keep pressing and not sit back and wait for Belgium to go on the attack.
"They are great players and you never know what to expect," Provod told reporters. "We wanted to be active, because to wait for them in a block would have been like waiting for death."
For Belgium, Inter Milan striker Lukaku proved a threat throughout the match as the Czechs pressured the visitors high and looked to push forward in attack.
Both sides continued to attack in search of a winner with Kevin De Bruyne's shot from the edge of the box hitting the woodwork in the 70th minute and Czech defender Jan Boril doing the same in the 84th minute when a weak clearance fell to him just inside the penalty area.
Belgium had more possession but the home side had more shots and had a chance to win in stoppage time when a Tomas Soucek header towards the far post was turned away by a defender.
The Czechs also hit the woodwork in the first half when Michael Krmencik nearly gave the hosts a dream start after latching onto a Vladimir Coufal pass down the right flank and firing a left-footed drive that smacked the post.
Minutes later Belgium were denied after Leander Dendoncker latched onto a loose ball in the box and sent a shot that Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik stopped with a sprawling one-handed save.
Both teams missed key players due to COVID-19 travel restrictions that deprived the Czechs of four starters from their 6-2 win over Estonia, including captain Vladimir Darida and Bayer Leverkusen forward Patrik Schick. Belgium's five Bundesliga players were also not available.
The Czechs, who top Group E on goal difference, travel to Wales on Tuesday while Belgium host Belarus.
(Writing by Michael Kahn; Editing by Toby Davis)