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December 7, 2017

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Lukaku boost for Man United

It won’t go down as the best goal of Romelu Lukaku’s first season at Manchester United. It might prove to be one of the most significant.

When Lukaku stuck out his left foot and prodded in a close-range volley for the equalizer against CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday, a sense of relief swept through Old Trafford.

Aside from scoring the final goal in United’s 4-1 win against an overwhelmed Newcastle United on November 18, Lukaku hadn’t found the net for his new club since the end of September. That run of one goal in 12 games hardly compared favorably to his fast start at United — 11 goals in his opening 10 matches.

Why Lukaku started to struggle is a matter of some debate. Was it the fact it coincided with a two-month injury absence of midfielder Paul Pogba, Lukaku’s close friend and the driving force in United’s midfield? Was it the schedule, given that there were tough games against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea early in his barren run? Was it just a natural come-down from the high?

Whatever the reason, Lukaku’s confidence in front of goal seemed to desert him and it wasn’t helped that he appeared isolated at times because of United manager Jose Mourinho’s tactics in some games.

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic made an earlier-than-expected return last month from a long-term knee injury, there were suddenly doubts about whether Lukaku was assured to be Mourinho’s first-choice striker going forward.

Yet the coach who once oversaw the departure of Lukaku from Chelsea in 2014 — later saying the striker’s “approach was not highly motivated to come to a competitive situation” at Stamford Bridge — has never lost faith in the same, but more mature, player he brought to United for at least 75 million pounds (US$97 million) in July.

Having tried not to get too excited by Lukaku’s early-season goal spree, Mourinho was always measured when discussing Lukaku’s run without scoring, repeatedly saying he valued the Belgian’s work rate and unselfishness just as much. In late October, Mourinho said Lukaku should be “untouchable” from criticism from United’s fans.

Lukaku is a player oozing in self-belief anyway, but he will have been comforted by Mourinho’s continued backing.

So the goal against CSKA, which was followed by another 66 seconds later by Marcus Rashford that completed a come-from behind 2-1 win and sealed first place for United in its group, was important to show that he is still the striker Mourinho can rely on. The timing of the goal was key, too, coming five days before the derby against unbeaten leader Manchester City in the English Premier League.


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