Belgian forward has a goal and an assist as Jose Mourinho's side come from behind to go back to second in the Premier League table.
Romelu Lukaku proves he can be man for the big occasion as Manchester United beat Chelsea
The flat-track bully prevailed on the rockiest of terrains. The accusations levelled at Romelu Lukaku are familiar, the statistics supporting them persuasive. He is the man for the small occasion, the scourge of the lesser lights, the high-profile forward who goes missing in the major matches.
There is a compendium of evidence to back up the theory. It may not be fully rebutted in one afternoon. But it was nevertheless a day when Lukaku perhaps started to reshape narratives.
Chelsea were beaten by an alumnus. The Belgian never found the net for them. Nor, indeed, had he scored for Manchester United against any of England’s top six.
Until yesterday, when he mustered an equalising goal and a decisive assist, sandwiching a spectacular shot that drew the game’s outstanding save.
It would be an exaggeration to say Lukaku beat Chelsea single-handed or that he alone changed the course of the game, but he had a huge impact, the kind he has rarely had in comparable games.
It brought a striking contrast with his Chelsea counterpart. The parallels were drawn between Lukaku and Alvaro Morata last summer when these clubs pursued them both, United opted for the Belgian and Chelsea ended up with the Spaniard.
When Morata scored a November winner between the clubs, they seemed to have got the better deal. When his sweet early volley rebounded back off the bar, Antonio Conte seemed to have secured the man who could make more of an impact on the grander stages.
That view may have been endorsed had Morata’s late leveller stood: instead he was deemed offside before he finished from Cesc Fabregas’ pass.
Instead, Lukaku proved decisive. He now has 22 goals for the campaign, 10 more than Morata. A maiden goal against the top six this season was just a sixth in 42 matches against England’s elite.
It was taken in predatory fashion, Lukaku beating his fellow Belgian Thibaut Courtois as he held off Marcos Alonso. After Lukaku had battled to regain possession, United had managed a neat triangle, involving Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial.
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When Sanchez chipped a cross towards him, his acrobatic volley brought a terrific save from Courtois. Then came proof of Lukaku’s transformation from goalscorer into multi-faceted forward.
Sometimes strikers can supply the best crosses. He whipped in a lovely ball. Jesse Lingard met it, heading beyond Courtois. The substitute had only been on the pitch for 11 minutes. He endorsed Jose Mourinho’s decision to introduce him at the expense of Martial.
The shift in fortunes between the principal forwards highlighted the way United captured the momentum. Mourinho’s move helped. He had begun with an ersatz, unorthodox 4-2-2-2 formation. It was narrower than normal, with the recalled Paul Pogba protected by two defensive midfielders, but Chelsea looked the more cogent.
As against Barcelona, it seemed Conte had got his tactics right. For the second time in a week, he did not get the desired result.
There was another action replay. Willian was brilliant against Barcelona. He struck again in Manchester. Mourinho, who took him to Stamford Bridge and wanted a reunion at Old Trafford, may have sensed an endorsement of his judgment.
It was a goal that displayed Willian’s status as a workhorse as well as his considerable quality. He cleared Antonio Valencia’s cross in his own penalty area, sprinted into the other to accept Eden Hazard’s pass and delivered an assured finish, albeit one David de Gea perhaps should have saved.
Yet when Lukaku, another who links the clubs, intervened, Chelsea were left outside the top four and United in the top two.