There was a moment towards the end of Manchester United’s recent 2-1 victory over Chelsea when it all clicked for Romelu Lukaku. Deep into stoppage time, with Jose Mourinho’s men hanging on to a slender one-goal lead, the Belgium international – deep inside his own half – took matters into his own hands to relieve the pressure on his defence. Collecting a pass from Jesse Lingard, the forward brushed off the close attention of centre-back Antonio Rudiger before running at Chelsea’s backpedalling defence. Seconds later, despite having a clear head start, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta were left in Lukaku’s wake, as the burly Belgian raced through the pair of them with the ball at his feet, unable to keep up with the striker’s raw pace and power. The £75 million man’s attempted effort bounced off Christensen and away for a United throw-in deep in their opponents’ half, winning crucial seconds as they edge towards victory, whilst the Old Trafford faithful roared in approval.
That final burst capped a perfect afternoon for Lukaku, who scored one and created the other to turn the game on its head and earn a hard-fought victory over Antonio Conte’s men and his former employers. It sounds ridiculous to say but it was at that moment that the United fans fully took the Belgian to heart. Lukaku’s debut campaign in red can be split up into three parts:
The first two months of the campaign saw Lukaku conquer all before him, with everything he touched seemingly ending up in the back of the net, as United started the new term on fire.
The next three months went far less swimmingly for the forward and his team-mates. Scoring just four goals in 20 appearances, Lukaku cut a frustrated figure as he looked short of confidence and was often on the receiving end of stick from the home fans.
Since the turn of the year, however, the former Everton man has been a player reborn. Besides bagging 10 goals in 14 matches – many of them proving to be crucial, match-winning strikes – Lukaku’s all-round game has improved significantly.
On top of all that, however, the forward has emerged as a true leader who has fully grasped just what it means to play for United. Whilst Mourinho’s men have put in a number of disappointing performance in recent weeks, the Belgian is one of the few players that can hold his head high, safe in the knowledge that he has given his all for the Reds’ cause.
Before a ball had even been kicked at the start of the season, questions were asked of his ability to handle the pressure of playing at a huge club like United. A look at his reaction to Nemanja Matic’s stoppage-time winner at Crystal Palace at the start of the month will provide the most accurate response. As the rest of the United players rushed over to the Serb, Lukaku fell to his knees, beating the turf in wild celebration.
First out to face the press after United’s elimination from the Champions League, the Belgian admitted that the team’s performance was far from good enough. After scoring his 25th goal of the season in the Reds’ next match, an FA Cup quarter-final victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, United’s number nine was the last to leave the pitch, choosing to applaud the United faithful inside a snowy Old Trafford.
By finding the back of the net against the Seagulls, Lukaku became just the eighth player in the club’s history to hit the 25-goal mark in their maiden season, adding his name to an illustrious list that includes the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Denis Law and Robin van Persie. All three have engrained their names into United folklore, with their strikes helping to bring silverware to Old Trafford. That is the challenge that the Belgian now faces.
He has already overcome multiple hurdles over the last few months to prove himself to the United faithful but Lukaku will be well aware that his goalscoring exploits must result in winning trophies for the club. Whilst the FA Cup would be a good place to start, there can be little doubt that the big Belgian will not be satisfied until he leads the Reds to the biggest prizes both domestically and on the European stage.