Romelu Lukaku’s brace against PSG helped Manchester United secure a historic victory in the Champions League.
The brace was also Lukaku’s third in his last three games. Six goals in all. A superb run of form by any standard but in Lukaku’s case it made him the first United player since Cristiano Ronaldo to score two or more goals in three consecutive games.
Any time you’re matching a Cristiano Ronaldo stat, you know you’re doing something right. That it’s a record that has stood since December 2006 when the Portuguese bagged two against Aston Villa, Wigan and then Reading – makes it even more impressive.
Whilst Cristiano smashed his in against weaker sides in the last week of the year, Lukaku bagged his goals against Crystal Palace, Southampton and then PSG. Sure, Palace and Saints are weaker than United too but with all the injuries The Red Devils are suffering, for the Belgian to step up and carry his team like he has is nothing short of remarkable.
There’s another link between Lukaku’s run and that of Cristiano’s 13 years ago; in the third of those games Cristiano played, against Reading, the man who opened the scoring for United and then set-up Cristiano’s first goal? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The very same man who is now managing Romelu Lukaku and helping him to reach incredible heights.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, whenever stagecoach drivers were used to deliver secure packages such as strongboxes or safes. In order to guard the shipment, there would be a driver and then what was known as a “shotgun messenger” – someone armed with a shotgun. This person who was there to do damage if it needed doing. From this, we got the phrase “riding shotgun.”
Anyway, back to United. It would have been tremendously easy for Romelu Lukaku to sulk the season away. He had gone long stretches of play without scoring or looking threatening under José Mourinho. And when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over, Lukaku missed the first two games and even though he scored in his first two sub appearances, it was from the outside looking in.
Marcus Rashford was playing up-front and had energised the side. They looked a thrilling and dynamic team without Lukaku in. Questions were asked, what could he bring to the side? He went nine games without a goal, but Solskjaer never lost faith in him. He continued to back the Belgian as he began getting his fitness levels back to where they were prior to the World Cup.
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And then just when Solskjaer needed him most, Lukaku began to deliver. After the Pyrrhic victory (well, draw) against Liverpool at Old Trafford, with almost an entire side out injured, Lukaku stepped up. His brace against Palace were two sublime finishes, equal parts instinctive and measured. Then against Saints he stepped up again with two right-footed strikes including a breathtaking effort from the top of the box in the 88th minute to win United the game.
Then against PSG his lethal left was called into action. Twice finishing neatly into a small space, twice giving United the lead in truly oppressive circumstances. These goals showed what Lukaku can offer that Rashford cannot. Sure, the Belgian may never be as fluid as Rashford but he is more of a pure goalscorer; able to take “bread and butter” chances with regularity.
Romelu Lukaku’s game by numbers vs. PSG:
12 passes completed
5 aerial duels won
4 (100%) take-ons completed
2 shots on target
Bang in form. pic.twitter.com/tM79K9WMaI
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 7, 2019
That sounds like a simple thing, something that isn’t worthy of featuring regularly for a club with Manchester United’s ambitions – but this is folly. All of the best goalscorers in history have excelled at the simple finishes, the kind of goals like Lukaku’s in Paris where it wasn’t a moment of improvisational genius (ala vs. Southampton) but simply good instincts, balance and technique that saw him through.
Manchester United are currently out-performing their xG by a substantial margin and that is in large part down to the sharpshooting of Romelu Lukaku. He’s been essential for this injury-struck United to keep the winning momentum up, and if Solskjaer gets the job permanently he will have eyes on creating a stable environment for growth and excellence, meaning Lukaku still has a huge part to play.
In the short-term, however, Lukaku will have his eyes on the Emirates Stadium at the weekend. He’s drawn level with Cristiano Ronaldo but if he bags a brace against Arsenal then he will surpass the great Portuguese. Of course Lukaku has only ever scored three times in 16 games against Arsenal, but then he’d never scored an away goal in the knockout rounds of the Champions League before Paris.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Belgian is fully capable of lifting his career to new heights. Of going higher, further, faster than he ever has before. PSG was but a glimpse of the damage he can cause teams if given the minutes at the head of Manchester United. The song goes “Ole’s at the wheel…” well if he is, then Lukaku is riding shotgun.