Romelu Lukaku’s move to Inter last year was one of those rare modern transfers where everybody wins.
Manchester United recouped somewhere in the region of €80million and were free to embrace a faster, more fluid and certainly more potent front line; Lukaku got a new lease of life in a system that suits him down to the ground; and Antonio Conte at last got a player he has wanted for years.
But the past 24 hours have not reflected so well on United’s decision.
A day after his side contrived to lose a Europa League semi-final against Sevilla that they had under control, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, if he chose to watch, will have seen Inter and Lukaku put on a showcase of how to be ruthless, the very quality United badly need to make the next step in their progress.
Lukaku and strike partner Lautaro Martinez scored two apiece as Antonio Conte’s side swatted away Shakhtar Donetsk with confounding ease, the Nerazzurri scoring five goals and conceding none despite managing only seven shots on target and 37 per cent of the ball.
18 – Romelu Lukaku has been directly involved in 18 goals in his last 10 UEFA Europa League matches (14 goals & 4 assists). The Belgian striker has scored in a record 10 successive games in the competition. Streak. pic.twitter.com/oFn0lybiXI
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 17, 2020
Their lives were made easier by the approach of their opponents, for whom sterile possession seemed to be the sole objective and sensible defending a chore too bothersome to attempt.
There were just two shots on goal in the first half, one of which was a thumping Martinez header, set up by Nicolo Barella’s teasing cross after goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov had kindly passed him the ball. Shakhtar’s response was to double down on their sideways passing, their Brazilian front four apparently under orders to stay as far away from each other, and Inter’s goal, as possible. Any United fans watching will have broken out in a cold sweat, the latter days of Louis van Gaal’s reign suddenly horribly familiar.
At one point, around the time Marlos crossed into a box containing nine Inter shirts and only one team-mate, Samir Handanovic put his foot on the ball and had a quick chat with his centre-backs. Ten yards away stood striker Moraes, as immobile and impassive as a Subbuteo figure in a cooling break. By this stage, Inter had abandoned any pretence of a high press and just watched as the men in grey passed themselves into submission.
Moraes touched the ball 13 times in the first hour; Handanovic did so 24 times. They both did early in the second half when Moraes headed Shakhtar’s solitary chance straight at the Inter keeper from six yards out. Two minutes later, Danilo D’Ambrosio had a free run-up to head in Marcelo Brozovic’s corner and end the contest.
It was then that Martinez and Lukaku really came alive, perhaps wanting to put on a show for those absent viewers who were still awake. Lukaku teed up his strike partner for an expert low finish for 3-0, and Martinez returned the favour four minutes later, his prodded pass collected and curled into the bottom corner by the Belgian.
2 – Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku are the first duo to score 20+ goals each in a single season for Inter Milan since Adriano and Obafemi Martins in the 2004-05 campaign. Partnership. pic.twitter.com/Uj0H1vqmGj
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 17, 2020
Lukaku’s second, his 14th in 10 Europa League games, was a six-second showreel of his greatest qualities. He took the ball, turned into space, surged away from hapless markers and slotted through the legs of Pyatov. It was power, pace and grace combined, the kind of moment that was far too rare a sight when he wore the red of United.
2 – Including both their quarter-final victory over FC København and their match with Sevilla tonight, Manchester United had 46 shots, with 21 hitting the target; however, the Red Devils managed just two goals from the penalty spot in those matches. Dissect. #UEL pic.twitter.com/VOHVGVLket
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 16, 2020
The goal brought to mind United’s attack against Sevilla: Marcus Rashford racing into the box and tripping over his feet, Anthony Martial dancing through defenders and shooting straight at keeper Bono, Mason Greenwood cutting infield into a wall of white shirts. Across the games against Copenhagen in the quarter-finals and Sevilla on Friday, United had 46 shots, 21 on target, and yet their only goals came from Bruno Fernandes penalties.
Lukaku has developed into Inter’s most devastating goalscorer in years. He was the wrong fit for Solskjaer, but he’s showing United exactly what they need.
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