Saturday, November 28, 2020

Romelu Lukaku: From unwanted at Man Utd to Europa League talisman for Inter

SoccerNews in UEFA Europa League 21 Aug 2020

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At the start of what was declared to be a new era for the club in July 2019, Inter launched a ‘Not For Everyone’ campaign. Perhaps fittingly, Romelu Lukaku joined the Nerazzurri the following month.

Known for his physical traits and goalscoring exploits, the Belgian striker had been deemed surplus to requirements at Manchester United, allowed to depart despite a lack of alternative options within the Red Devils’ squad. 

Having barely been given a kick during his time at Chelsea, Lukaku had failed to fully convince while with United, despite getting 27 goals in all competitions in an excellent debut campaign. 

“Of course, Rom has a good record and stats. He’s one of the top number nines around when you want to play with that kind of striker, a target man,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said not long after Lukaku’s departure to Italy was officially confirmed.

The United boss had damned with faint praise. To borrow the words of Liam Neeson in ‘Taken’, what Lukaku has is a very particular set of skills; skills he has acquired over a very long career (he made his Anderlecht debut at 16, after all). They are skills that make him a nightmare for defenders but were no longer needed in Manchester, apparently. 

Yet this was the same player who had scored 113 Premier League goals, including productive stints with West Brom and Everton. Only Sergio Aguero (162) and Harry Kane (125) scored more than Lukaku since he made his first appearance in the competition by the time he departed England for a fresh start in a new environment.

Whether he rounds out the season by winning the Europa League or not, Lukaku has certainly shown he is for Inter.

Partnering Lautaro Martinez up top, the 27-year-old has dazzled under the guidance of Antonio Conte. While coming up short in Serie A, perhaps missing a glorious opportunity to claim the title, considering the issues at champions Juventus, Inter can finish with a flourish by beating Sevilla in Cologne. 

Lukaku has scored six times in five appearances to help his club get this far. His strike in the quarter-final win over Bayer Leverkusen saw him score for a ninth successive Europa League match, a new record. He duly extended that streak against Shakhtar Donetsk next time out, adding a late brace in a 5-0 rout.

“I’m happy for him, as he deserves all of this success, but Romelu must also thank the team for putting him in the conditions to express himself in the best form of his entire career,” Conte said after the Leverkusen game to Sky Sport Italia.  

Inter’s boss was at his begrudging best with the comments about the forward, yet he also made a salient point; Lukaku has prospered the most when a team is built around him, rather than being asked just to fit in. 

All of his goals in the Europa League this term have come from inside the box, which is exactly where he needs to be to do the most damage. 

The frontman has been clinical too, converting 43 per cent of his shots attempted, compared to 31 per cent in Serie A. His conversion of big chances drops slightly (43 per cent to 50 in the league), but he has impressively averaged a goal every 59 minutes en route to the final. 

Lukaku could have been daunted by replacing Mauro Icardi in the famous number nine shirt. Instead, his scoring exploits suggest it has inspired him, maybe also helped by having a point to prove following his exit from United. 

The script seemed set for a reunion when his old club and Inter were kept apart in the knockout draw, only for Sevilla to produce a late plot twist that Neeson himself would surely have appreciated. Still, while United have returned home to focus on a new season that is just around the corner, Inter have one final hurrah. 

For Lukaku, it offers the opportunity to prove Solskjaer right – he is one of the best number nines in the world, particular set of skills and all. 

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