For only the second time in the last 15 occasions in all competitions, On Sunday, Manchester United emerged victorious against the Blues of West London. Both of those wins have come under the Portuguese and while United put in arguably their best display of 2016/17 against Chelsea last season, the latest win has come under much more difficult circumstances.
Chelsea had the better start – bringing in all the confidence they had gained from a fighting 1-1 against Barcelona in midweek. Testing the frame of the bar as early as the fourth minute – through Alvaro Morata, Chelsea dominated the early exchanges, particularly from the left-hand side against United’s right flank that looked outnumbered 2 to 1 all over the pitch. They scored through Willian – the man who has redeemed himself in the last week, showing he is still a vital asset in this Chelsea by adding to his goal tally at Old Trafford. As Eden Hazard found the Brazilian through on goal, there was only going to be one result even if it involves beating the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment.
But the game was ultimately decided by another player who also had to redeem himself, at Manchester United. Belgian Romelu Lukaku, despite hitting the 20-goal mark for the season in all competitions, has been criticised for not delivering it in the biggest of games against the best sides in the league. Until Sunday, that is. Part of what made United a tough club to thrive in for forwards in recent years is how their approach to football has changed post-Alex Ferguson.
In this transition era, as United have gone through continental managers who have also happened to be conservative forwards have not had the best of seasons at the club and Lukaku has had his fair share of games when he has been starved of any service inside the box where he can be very effective. In 2015-16, Anthony Martial ended up as top scorer at United – netting a mere 17 goals in all competitions as the Red Devils themselves finished the season scoring just a goal more than Sunderland did.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic enjoyed a remarkable season in the following campaign for his age but there was always a feeling that he had to do things on his own, often disconnected from the team, in what was clearly a temporary fix while Romelu Lukaku – for all his mid-season drought in terms of goals, has had a respectable season so far for Manchester United.
The Belgian scored his 13th Premier League goal of the season on Sunday cancelling out Chelsea’s deserved early lead – from his only shot on goal, from inside 10 yards, assisted brilliantly by Anthony Martial who was for long periods in the game – United’s brightest forward.
Romelu Lukaku averages a goal under every 3 shots for United and when he has not had enough goals, he has invariably not had enough opportunities to have a go on goal. Manchester United rank 6th (among the top six) for shots attempted and that paints a clearer picture as to what the underlying problem is. On Sunday however, the 24-year old stepped up when United could not afford to lose at a point when they were losing.
The home side pressed on in the second half – with Kante’s early booking and Fabregas’ limited mobility giving them the advantage in midfield, the front three found themselves more involved in the final third. As Jesse Lingard came on for Alexis Sanchez, Mourinho pushed Pogba further up the field as the Red Devils upped their search for the crucial goal that had the potential to kill the game. And Lukaku, fittingly after scoring the opening goal himself, launched the ball in for Lingard to pounce on from in between the centre-halves to direct the ball towards the net.
That was Lingard’s 13th of the season, quite comfortably his most prolific in the first team squad. The 25-year old’s importance to the senior team has skyrocketed in the last eight weeks as his goals have now directly resulted in 7 points for United – only behind Romelu Lukaku (9) in that regard – if one doesn’t count the amount of points David De Gea’s astounding saves account for every season.
All in all, in a week as pivotal as this, where United could reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League and the semi-finals of the FA Cup – they have made arguably the best possible start.