On a day that might decide the order of those finishing behind Manchester City, Manchester United’s premier summer signing finally showed up against the big boys.
If the earlier meeting at Stamford Bridge vindicated one’s preference for Alvaro Morata over Romelu Lukaku, Sunday’s matchup against Chelsea at Old Trafford showed how much the tables have turned. If anything, the way the match turned out was reflective of the strikers’ fortunes this season. Morata had a great chance to put Chelsea in front inside five minutes but was denied by the crossbar, and he later had another goal chalked off wrongly for offside. In contrast, while Lukaku was originally isolated up top as Chelsea controlled the early phases of the game, he slowly grew into the game, much like he has done in recent weeks.
To any relatively objective viewer, Lukaku has improved in the past few weeks. I’ve been impressed with his transition since the dip in form earlier in the season. His hold-up play has gotten better, offering his team an attacking outlet to relieve the pressure on Manchester United’s defense. He has also been able to pass the ball better to bring his other teammates into the game. Since the turn of the year, Lukaku has had either a goal or an assist in every game in which the Red Devils have scored.
And so he proved on Sunday, scoring and assisting as his team came from behind to defeat the defending champions 2–1. Lukaku proved his physical capability in the build-up to the first United goal, which came in the 39th minute. He was able to hold off the challenges of Andreas Christensen and N’Golo Kanté — the latter of whom is seemingly everyone’s favorite midfield player — as well as Marcos Alonso right at the end to pull his team back on level terms just seven minutes after Willian’s opener.
Lukaku’s athleticism was also on show. About 67 minutes into the game, his spectacular volley may have reminded the Manchester United faithful of Wayne Rooney’s acrobatics against Manchester City in 2011. It required the outstretched fingertips of Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois to prevent an almost like-for-like recreation of Rooney’s BBC Goal of the Season.
Eight minutes later, Lukaku ran into the channel, finding space against Antonio Rüdiger and Pedro to squeeze in his cross for Jesse Lingard to head in the winner. And right at the end, to take time off the clock, Lukaku showed his power and pace to beat three Chelsea defenders. While his shot was blocked by Christensen, Old Trafford applauded the Belgian’s efforts and his performance on the day.
In short, Lukaku demonstrated the qualities of a top striker and put in a strong performance against a top-class defense for the first time in a United jersey. He ended his season-long goal drought against top-eight sides, and the relief among the United faithful was plain to see. The question for Manchester United fans is whether this run continues. If recent form is anything to go by, one might think United will be able to finish top of the rest of the pile come May.