- Lukaku ends his top-six drought to sink Chelsea.
Under other circumstances, Romelu Lukaku’s role in setting up Jesse Lingard’s winner against Chelsea would have counted for more than this equaliser. A fine cross highlighted the improvement in his game outside the penalty box. But he had waited 938 minutes. Or more than six months since his debut.
However it is measured, it is safe to say the costliest striker in Manchester United’s history was expected to find the net against any of England’s top six rather sooner into his Old Trafford career. The overall statistics are still unflattering – one goal from his opening 18 shots against the English elite for United, five in his last 42 games, incorporating his time at Everton – but at least it was a start when, for the first time, he struck against Chelsea.
READ MORE: Criticism never affected me, insists Lukaku
Lukaku’s potency against relegation-threatened teams is not in doubt. It is one of the reasons United signed him. To be a genuine success at Old Trafford, however, he has to score defining goals on such stages. A composed finish offered more encouragement after some unconvincing efforts in previous summit clashes. So did his role in the goal.
Lukaku’s work-rate has been questioned in such games. The sense is that he is showing more industry for United. It was significant that the Belgian battled to win the ball back before Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial set him up. He almost added another with a spectacular volley. The next, and bigger, test is to do it more often when United could have 11 more matches this season against either England’s top six or leading European sides.
2. Willian makes it harder for Conte to bench him again.
Antonio Conte spent some of Friday defending his past decisions to bench Willian for much of his time in charge of Chelsea, either because he preferred Pedro or, in playing 3-5-2, he omitted both. It will be harder to omit the Brazilian for the remaining few months. Willian has supplanted Eden Hazard as the Blues’ form player. He has also reduced the reliance on the Belgian. His opener at Old Trafford was his fifth goal in six starts. More pertinently, it was a second in two against elite opponents: first Barcelona and then United.
AS IT HAPPENED: Manchester United vs Chelsea, Premier League
READ MORE: Mourinho shakes Conte with mind games
It showed many of the attributes that Jose Mourinho admires in the man he took to Stamford Bridge: the defensive diligence to track back and win a header in his own box; the speed and directness to break quickly and the power to get into the United penalty box; the finishing prowess to take his chance. It should not be forgotten that Willian was Chelsea’s outstanding player in their bleak final few months under Mourinho, the one whose form improved as everyone else’s collapsed.
He has showed his character before. This was evidence of his ability. And with a tiring Hazard being removed in defeat at Old Trafford, it illustrated the importance of another relieving the Belgian of his burden if Chelsea are to reclaim a top-four spot.
3. Robertson solves Liverpool’s left-back problem.
A left-footer who Liverpool signed in the summer excelled on Saturday. Mohamed Salah got his regulation goal, added an assist and helped Jurgen Klopp’s team pass 100 goals for the season as they beat West Ham 4-1. But another was almost as impressive. It was Andrew Robertson’s cross that brought Sadio Mane’s goal, just as it was the Scot who centred when Salah spurned a golden chance. Nor was it a one-off display. He has been consistently excellent in a time when he has started 14 of Liverpool’s last 15 league games, relentless going forward and solid on his defensive duties.
READ MORE: Salah nets again as Reds climb to second
Rewind a few months and Alberto Moreno was the regular in the side and being described as the answer to Liverpool’s perennial left-back problems. The Spaniard, despite some encouraging displays, is not: he remains too erratic and too defensively suspect.
But Robertson should be: just as Virgil van Dijk’s arrival means they no longer need to sign a centre-back in the summer, he should end their pursuit of a left-back. It has been a position where Liverpool have long lacked a top-class performer – John Arne Riise is probably their best in the Premier League era, though right-backs Rob Jones and Alvaro Arbeloa did well at times on the opposite flank and midfielder James Milner began well last season – but now, finally, they appear to have the solution.
4. Beaten Baggies look doomed.
It is one of the closest relegation battles in years. With one exception, anyway. While only eight points separate ninth from 19th, West Bromwich Albion are six points adrift at the foot of the table. Saturday’s defeat to Huddersfield left them staring the Championship firmly in the face. In theory, the fixture list until the middle of April is friendly; in reality, they have won one league game since August so it scarcely seems to matter who they face.
AS IT HAPPENED: West Brom v Huddersfield
READ MORE: Mounie puts West Brom in real trouble
The increasingly beleaguered manager Alan Pardew raised the question of Leicester last week; not the Foxes’ title-winning exploits, but their great escape the previous season, when Nigel Pearson’s side won seven of their last nine league games. Albion may only require six victories, or five plus a sprinkling of draws, but, as Pardew pointed out, they have won three of their last 37 league games. Whether or not he is fired, they seem to be going down without a whimper whereas their conquerors, Huddersfield, are straining every sinew to stay up.
5. Prolific Murray overshadows Brighton’s record buy.
When Brighton spent a club record £14 million on Jurgen Locadia, it seemed a public admission that Chris Hughton lacked a goalscorer. It looked the beginning of the end for Glenn Murray, the valiant veteran who helped them get promotion. It appeared hard to argue with that: there was a time in November and December when Brighton only scored one goal in nine league games.
AS IT HAPPENED: Brighton v Swansea
And, indeed, Locadia can claim he has made a difference. The former PSV Eindhoven forward has struck in both appearances for his new club. But he completed the scoring against Swansea and while that made it the first time since 1981 that Brighton had mustered four goals in a top-flight game, Murray got the vital first two goals. He has five in as many games in all competitions, 10 in the Premier League this season. Only more celebrated and, in most cases, expensive attackers have more. The Championship stalwart is averaging a goal every 156 minutes in the Premier League this season. Brighton look likely to stay up. If they do, it will owe much to the underrated Murray.