Romelu Lukaku, they said, is merely a flat-track bully; nothing more. Just an exploiter of inferior opposition. A beneficiary of teammates’ skill. A poacher, but a high-quantity, low-quality one at that. That’s what they, the English football collective, had decided.
And then, a little after 3:30 p.m. on a sunny Sunday in Manchester, they watched as Lukaku ran the right channel; as he danced over the ball; as he turned into an artist, a master of precision, and picked out the delicate cross that, at least for the moment, erased many of Manchester United’s Premier League worries.
It was met by Jesse Lingard, and Lingard headed United to a pivotal 2-1 victory over Chelsea. He avenged a 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge back in November, lifted United back into second place, and knocked Chelsea out of the top four for the first time since October.
Sunday’s match, sandwiched in between yet another Tottenham victory and a cup final in which both United and Chelsea would have loved to be playing, felt like a crossroads. The race for three available Champions League places had once again narrowed. The gap between second and fifth, when Alvaro Morata got proceedings underway at Old Trafford, was four points.
A Chelsea victory could have slashed it to two, and knocked United back to the brink of the top four for the first time all season. And the Blues had flashed their big-game credentials in the first half. They hadn’t lost to a Big Six side not named Manchester City all season, and didn’t look like they’d lose Sunday, either.
They deserved the lead that Willian gave them in the 32nd minute:
Morata had struck the crossbar earlier in the day as well. United’s on-ball pressure was lacking, and its defensive focus, also a bit shoddy, was unable to compensate.
But Lukaku, an hour before he turned provider, got United level going into halftime. He showcased both strength and body control, holding off N’Golo Kante at the top of the box before running into the area underneath Anthony Martial. Martial’s lay-off wasn’t easy to handle, either, but the Belgian striker did just that and buried it past Thibaut Courtois:
He and Lukaku, two of United’s three highest-paid players, had been scapegoats for many of the team’s woes, and often not without reason. Much of the Lukaku criticism, though perhaps short-sighted given his track record, was valid – or at least not unsubstantiated.
But both had also been victims of overinflated expectations. Lukaku, despite some struggles, has had stretches of lucrative productivity. Spurred on by the goal, he seemed to re-find that form in the second half. Even after setting up Lingard, he helped relieve pressure; helped United see out three points.
And they’re three massive points. The six-point gulf between the two sides, with just 10 matches to go, is wider than many realize. And it might represent the beginning of the end for Antonio Conte at Chelsea.
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