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.
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.
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.
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.