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Lukaku finally makes it count as Mourinho gets the better of Conte

Much has been made of Romelu Lukaku’s failure to produce against the big sides since he completed his £75 move to Manchester United last summer.

But against former club Chelsea at Old Trafford, the Belgian answered his critics by delivering a match-winning performance – long overdue though it might have been.

Despite the occasional flashes of quality, United’s 2-1 win was an underwhelming affair, lacking the feisty edge that had seemed inevitable after Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte spent the two months leading up to the game engaging in a bitter verbal battle via the media.

In the end we saw no snubbed handshakes, touchline arguments or crunching tackles. It was a good game of football, yes, but it was all a bit sanitised.

And for all the hype of second vs fourth clash in front of 75,000 fans, there was no great atmosphere to speak of either.

A passionate crowd can often inject some much-needed life into a tight game like this one, but whether it was United’s uninspiring form of late or the unavoidable fact that the team from across the city are champions elect, Old Trafford never really got going.

Chelsea dominance

United struggled mightily to get going too, picking up in many aspects from their dismal display Champions League against Sevilla in midweek. Chelsea were utterly dominant in the opening half hour, and Willian’s opener in the 32nd minute was just reward.

After seeing a number of half-chances go to waste, most notably Alvaro Morata striking the crossbar with a snap volley that perhaps a more in-form striker would have put away, Eden Hazard took advantage of some dreadful positioning from Antonio Valencia to slip the Brazilian through to beat David de Gea, who wasn’t his imperious self on the day, at his near post.

‘Despite the two managers playing down any hard feelings, Mourinho will know he got the better of Conte in the all-important second half’

The home support were murmuring with discontent at United’blown outrage once their side went 1-0 down.

Paul Pogba, an excellent player in a poor spell of form, bore the brunt of the home fans disapproval, booed every time he stalled on the ball despite a total lack of support from United’s attackers at times.

This was a worrying sign that the lazy, ignorant media narrative of Pogba as the young, rich black man that cares more about getting his hair cut and dancing on Instagram than he does about football, is starting to permeate even the United fanbase.

There’s no denying the Frenchman has struggled to find the consistent brilliance he displayed in his final season at Juventus. But those journalists and pundits blaming this on his entirely ordinary off-field interests should focus on how Mourinho has so far failed to fit Pogba into his side in a way that plays to his strengths and hides his weaknesses.

At least the ire of their fans seemed to kick-start the players in red, and in the 39th minute United’s expensive attack linked up beautifully, in a sight all too rare, to produce an equaliser.

Alexis Sanchez drilled a ball into the feet of Anthony Martial in the box, and he picked out Lukaku to slide it past his compatriot Thibaut Courtois in goal. It was their only real moment of a terrible half, but a confident striker only needs one chance to score.

And despite the two managers playing down any hard feelings, Mourinho will know he got the better of Conte in the all-important second half.

Resurgent United

After the break, United were every bit as dominant as Chelsea had been early on, creating little more than half chances but completely dominating the game and looking the only side likely to grab all three points.

Sanchez and Lukaku linked up again in spectacular fashion with the game still tied, with the Chilean going on a trademark run before picking out Lukaku, who improvised superbly with a half-bicycle kick that required an excellent stop from Courtois.

‘It was a side of Lukaku’s game rarely seen, but proof that he is a special talent when he is in the mood’

But the game was decided in a tale of two substitutes. Mourinho was first to blink, replacing Martial with Jesse Lingard, who would have felt aggrieved not to have started.

Minutes later, in a puzzling move, Conte withdrew Hazard for Pedro with the game still in the balance. He’d not been at his dazzling best, but his game-changing talent was evident when playing the through ball for Chelsea’s goal, and the Blues missed his quality greatly in the final minutes.

And so it was that Lingard got the winner, and his Black Panther-themed celebration made the back pages. But although he showed guile to escape Andreas Christensen in the box and head accurately into the corner, it was Lukaku’s work that made the goal.

Picking the ball up in an unusual situation for him, out on the right wing with two blue shirts closing down, the 24-year-old froze Antonio Rudiger with a step over and whipped in an excellent cross that allowed Lingard to meet the ball in his stride.

It was a side of Lukaku’s game rarely seen, but proof that he is a special talent when he is in the mood and capable of producing moments that can beat any team, not just the Premier League’s weaker sides.

European ambition

Despite Chelsea’s failure to reproduce the quality they showed in the first half, they had a legitimate gripe over Morata’s disallowed goal in the 86th minute.

It initially looked offside, and there was little protestation from the Chelsea players, but replays showed Victor Lindelof’s outstretched leg was playing the Spaniard onside.

‘Mourinho’s endless struggle to fully win over United’s support will continue in spite of this result’

Chelsea failed to create anything beyond that, despite the hulking Courtois venturing into the opposite box in the dying seconds, and United held on for a morale-boosting win to send them back into second place.

Mourinho and Conte shook hands again, and both now will surely focus their attentions solely on more important things than their mutual antipathy. The Italian now has his work cut out to avoid elimination in Europe by Barcelona, and with the title already out of sight, could find himself moving on just a year after winning the title.

As for Mourinho, his endless struggle to fully win over United’s support will continue in spite of this result, and there are still major questions to be asked over the best fit for both Pogba and his shiny new star Sanchez, who has so far looked mostly out of sync with his new teammates.

But with the Red Devils now heavy favourites to progress into the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in five years, this win proved that on sheer talent alone, they have the ability to do big things.

Bad blood and bitterness set to fuel United vs. Chelsea

It’s quite a rare occurrence, especially in the context of the modern, politically correct Premier League, that a game between 2nd and 4th in the table is being keenly anticipated for an off-the-field rivalry as opposed to its promise as an actual game of football.

But with Manchester United in the middle of a tepid run of uninspiring results, and Chelsea struggling to recreate the form that saw them run away with the title last season, the fires have instead been stoked in the media rooms, with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte engaging in a petty and seemingly never-ending war of words in the build up to Sunday’s game.

The feud                                  

Cast your minds all the way back to October 2016, and their first Premier League meeting. Upon his return to Stamford Bridge, Mourinho’s United were demolished 4-0 – with the fiery Conte celebrating even the last goal as if it was a World Cup final. Mourinho took umbrage with what he saw as Conte trying to “humiliate” him, and things have only gone downhill from there.

Mourinho labelled Chelsea a “defensive team” in February 2017, and the following month, after again being bested by Conte in an FA Cup tie at the Bridge, claimed he “will always be number one” at Chelsea due to his trophy-laden spells at the club.

Conte retorted in the summer, telling press he wanted to “avoid a Mourinho season”, referencing Jose’s dismal title defence during his second spell down King’s Road. Then, again, the two clashed in the press in October after Mourinho seemingly referenced Conte “crying about injuries”.

The pair were remarkably well behaved in the lead up and aftermath to Chelsea’s deserved 1-0 victory over United in November, though, and it was seemingly safe to assume that the pair had buried the hatchet and moved past it. That was, until January.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Mourinho took a thinly-veiled dig at Conte for “behaving like a clown on the touchline”, and then even more strikingly, told press “I will never be suspended for match-fixing”, which was assumed to be a direct reference to Conte’s four-month ban served during his time as Juventus manager, for failing to report match-fixing at Siena, a previous club.

Conte hit back by calling Jose “a little man”, and insisting he “will not forget these comments”.

All very petty, but all of the insults and dirty laundry being aired over the past few months has no doubt added greatly to the drama of the occasion, which for me, cannot be seen as a bad thing.

On the field

But despite the mind games, football matches are ultimately always decided by the players on the field.

Both United and Chelsea are coming off midweek Champions League draws, 0-0 in Seville for United and a spirited 1-1 at home to Barcelona for the Blues.

There was plenty of discussion, as there usually is in today’s media, about Paul Pogba on Wednesday, after Mourinho chose to leave out his record signing in favour of academy prospect Scott McTominay – only to be forced into reinstating the Frenchman after just 17 minutes due to Ander Herrera’s injury.

Pogba was solid if entirely unspectacular (much like the entire United team bar David De Gea) in his 75 minutes, but the situation itself has created fresh concerns at Old Trafford – there is a certain awkwardness and distrust created when a manager drops a high-profile player for a big game, only to have to call on him minutes later.

But with Herrera now on the casualties list, Pogba is almost certain to start on Sunday, most likely as part of a midfield three with McTominay and ex-Chelsea man Nemanja Matic. United will line up with Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and one of Mourinho’s revolving cast of right-wingers up top – likely Marcus Rashford.

At the back, it’ll be up to a less than convincing backline of Valencia, Smalling, Lindelof and Young to try and offer more protection to their goalkeeper than was given in Seville.

For Chelsea, despite regret over gifting Barcelona such a vital away goal on Tuesday, they are likely to head north full of confidence after going head-to-head with the best team on the planet and making a real game of it. Willian, who looked immense in striking Barcelona’s woodwork twice before curling home a lovely effort to open the scoring, should retain his place as part of Chelsea’s attacking trio.

Eden Hazard led the line against Barca, but complained of a lack of touches in the central role, saying “You don’t get a lot of balls. I might have touched 25 balls that night, and 15 were flying towards my head. That’s not really playing to my qualities.”

The Belgian’s clear desire to return to the left-wing, plus the return to fitness of Alvaro Morata, will likely see Hazard’s wishes fulfilled against United, with Morata set to return to the lineup against the team he thought he was joining last summer.

Danny Drinkwater may get a look-in alongside N’Golo Kante, who against Barcelona returned to the destructive form that has been somewhat lacking at times this season, and Andreas Christensen will be looking to bounce back strongly after his errant pass gifted the all-important away goal to Lionel Messi on Tuesday.


Let’s be honest – neither side will be harbouring dreams of anything more than second place in the league this season.

Manchester City have been too good, and got too far ahead to be threatened by anybody at this stage. It did seem at one point that United were nailed on to follow their local rivals home to a comfortable second place, but their sputtering start to 2018 has left them just two points clear of Liverpool behind them – and only three ahead of Chelsea.

It’s a game that could have huge ramifications on the Champions League places, one that neither can comfortably afford to lose.

Given that, and the amount of pride on the line between two coaches that clearly resent each other, and we are looking at what will surely be a tight and nervy game. It pains me to say it, but when you factor in the presence of the two best goalkeepers in the Premier League, all roads lead to a 0-0 for me.

As someone who’s paying a premium to attend on Sunday, I really hope I’m wrong.