Just as Romelu Lukaku was settling into life as a formidable Manchester United striker at Premier League level, along came this reminder that even greater tests await. A No 9 at this club is judged by his deeds in Europe, where Denis Law, Ruud van Nistelrooy and lately Wayne Rooney were the keepers of a tradition Lukaku has now taken on.
For his own good, you would hope, nobody sat in the United dressing room reciting tales of Rooney’s debut hat-trick against Fenerbache in 2004, or the way Van Nistelrooy would poach the hell out of defences; or Cristiano Ronaldo’s rapier attacks in Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2008 Champions League winning side. As for Best, Law and Charlton - best not go there. But the opportunity exists for Lukaku to thrive in Europe as he has in recent years for Everton - and now here at Old Trafford.
A goal-scoring start and a performance of great energy matched Lukaku’s start for United in domestic football. After his back-post header from a Daley Blind cross in the 54th minute, he wheeled away in front of the Stretford End, as if a goal in Europe was the most natural thing on earth.
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In United’s 21st group stage appearance, Basel offered a relatively gentle introduction to full Champions League action for the Belgian striker bought from Everton for £75m to add speed and thrust to United’s attacking play. Last season, Jose Mourinho relied on the more stately pace of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose injury late in the campaign forced the club to gazump Chelsea in the race to sign Lukaku.
United have relied, too, on the bull-in-a-china-shop qualities and aerial might of Marouane Fellaini, who usurped Lukaku for United’s opening goal here. An expert cross from the right by Ashley Young looked sure to end up on Lukaku’s head, but an even bigger figure rose behind him to put United in front. Fellaini, a rudimentary, auxiliary striker, had pinched Lukaku’s job. Nobody minded. United’s official striker lashed the ball into the net in celebration, after a first-half in which he displayed his speed of movement and familiar high work-rate.
Besides, he soon took revenge. When Blind’s cross swung in, Fellaini was again hunting at the far post, but this time Lukaku beat him to the ball. Before this personal breakthrough, he had stressed Basel’s defence with two first-half chances. Supported by Juan Mata and Henrik Mkhitaryan, he kept three Basel defenders busy. On the right, he played a neat pass to the edge of the Basel penalty box, but Mkhitaryan struck it against a post.
So how good is Lukaku? We could work backwards to find that answer. First, his appetite is first-rate. Nobody could accuse him being a static target. He moves across the line, and in and out; and he loves a sprint, cleaning out wide defenders as he runs. United’s midfielders doubtless loved playing with Ibrahimovic. Lukaku, though, enables them to work at a much quicker pace.
He is also a thinker, a self-improver. You can see him asking himself questions - setting himself challenges - as he moves around the pitch. The biggest examination will come later, when United are playing Chelsea and Manchester City at home, and Barcelona or Paris St-Germain abroad. Then we will see whether he has the subtlety to hurt the very best defences in tight areas, and the lethal cold-eyed finishing that Ronaldo brought to United and later Real Madrid.
At this point there are no grounds for pessimism about his prospects of ‘stepping up’ to that higher level - as United themselves did by returning to Champions League football, via their Europa League triumph in Stockholm in May; a mechanical exercise, straight from Mourinho’s pragmatism manual. With 10 goals in eight appearances this season for club and country, Lukakau is succeeding on all fronts, even if United’s fixture list this term has yet to produce their first big clash.
There is sufficient creativity now in this United midfield for Lukakau to think the ‘service’ will keep coming. And better delivery from the flanks, where the team had become turgid. They are playing with noticeably increased confidence and purpose, in part because Lukaku brings such mobility and enthusiasm to the ‘tip’ of the team.
Group stage games are only a ‘feeler’ for how new players might fare at the serious end of the competition. On this evidence, Lukaku’s international experience and technical education in Belgian football will translate comfortably to Champions League games. His zest is matched of course by that of Marcus Rashford, who scored the third.
United’s finest teams are a mix of many virtues, but there is no true glamour, or balance, without a top-class centre-forward. Lukaku was bought to be that player after Ibrahimovic was recruited as a temporary solution and Rooney slid into shadow. This is his time - his chance - a fact he seems to grasp, and relish. His wish to contribute to the team play at all times bodes well. So did his goal: the first of many.