MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Romelu Lukaku chose the visit of former club Chelsea to end his scoring drought against the Premier League’s top teams and produce his best performance for Manchester United.
Shrugging off his tag as a so-called “flat-track bully,” Lukaku scored the equalizer, set up Jesse Lingard for the second-half winner and delivered a mature, hard-working all-round display as United came from behind to beat the champions 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday.
In a crowning moment in the third minute of injury time, Lukaku relieved some pressure by spinning his marker, Antonio Rudiger, inside his own half and driving forward with a 60-meter run. United fans gasped and rose to applaud in appreciation.
“Probably the people go home with the image of that incredible sprint that could have handed him a goal,” United manager Jose Mourinho said. “It was the image of a team that gave absolutely everything to try and win an important game for us.”
The goal Lukaku did score — a neat, side-footed strike in the 39th minute — was his first against any of the Premier League’s leading eight sides this season and took him onto 22 in all competitions in his first year at United. He didn’t overtly celebrate the goal against a club where he played from 2011-14 and nearly joined again last summer.
Lukaku denied after the match that he had been bothered by the criticism toward him — “at the end of day, I just have to work hard for the team,” he said — but the likely boost to the striker’s morale was perhaps as important to United as the victory itself.
It lifted United back up to second place, above Liverpool, and opened up a six-point gap to fifth-place Chelsea with 10 games remaining.
Chelsea was two points off the fourth and final Champions League qualification position, leaving manager Antonio Conte to acknowledge that not reaching Europe’s top competition “could be a possibility, for sure.”
“It’s the only championship that you can find six teams that start to fight to win the title and for a place in the Champions League,” Conte said. “This is the only country to have this competition and there is this risk to stay out of the Champions League.”
The match came after weeks of rancor between Conte and Mourinho, who fired off increasingly edgy barbs at each other in news conferences. Thinking Mourinho had called him a “clown,” Conte went as far as claiming the Chelsea boss had dementia. Conte then offered to meet Mourinho “in a room” after the United manager brought up match-fixing allegations that were leveled at — and subsequently dropped against — Conte from his time in Italy.
There was a frosty handshake between the pair before kickoff and they avoided any confrontation during the game, which Chelsea started well and took the lead through the latest scorcher from Willian.
The Brazilian began a counterattack from his own box after heading clear a free kick. Bursting forward, Willian exchanged passes with Eden Hazard before running into the box and firing in a shot that was near to David De Gea but was so powerfully struck that it flew past the goalkeeper.
United hadn’t committed many players forward up to that point. Once they did, the equalizer arrived. Alexis Sanchez fed a pass to Anthony Martial, who laid the ball across for Lukaku to control and sidefoot home from 10 meters (yards).
Chelsea faded after the break, with Willian and Hazard less effective and Paul Pogba — recalled to United’s starting lineup — growing into the game for United.
Lukaku had a shot off a scissor kick tipped over by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, then showed a different facet of his game to create the 75th-minute winner by curling over a cross that was headed home by Lingard. The midfielder had only been on the field for 11 minutes.
“You can only win against the top teams with that humble attitude,” Mourinho said. “We can be speaking about tactics and positions and football science, but to win against the top teams the attitude has to be really special. And the players showed that.”
Steve Douglas is at <a target=”—blank” href=”http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80″>www.twitter.com/sdouglas80</a>