sports 6 days ago

Lukaku back among the goals ahead of Manchester derby

The Associated Press — By STEVE DOUGLAS - AP Sports Writer

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — 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 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 on Nov. 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 and Chelsea early in his barren run? Was it just a natural come-down from the high he was on upon joining United?

Maybe defenders were simply learning how to play him better.

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. The slump in form of playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan probably didn't help in that respect, either.

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 (then $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, especially given what happened at Chelsea.

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 Premier League.

"I am always happy with Romelu because the way he plays for the team is absolutely amazing," Mourinho said. "If he can score that goal and feel that happiness that strikers only get when they score goals, then great. But his work for the team is amazing. To score a goal in the Champions League makes me feel happy not for me but for him."

There was a telling moment in the first half against CSKA when Lukaku sent a disappointing ball across the face of the box, with two teammates in decent positions. Mourinho strode forward in his technical area and applauded Lukaku, a clear and public show of support.

Considering he already has 13 goals by early December, this has to be regarded as a successful start to life at United by Lukaku. He also recently became Belgium's all-time leading scorer with 31 goals.

He is only 24, remember.

Critics point to his sometimes-heavy first touch and his past failure to regularly score goals in big games. But there's so much more to come from Lukaku.

Starting, United fans will hope, with the team's biggest game of the season on Sunday.

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More AP Champions League coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/ChampionsLeague

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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