The Wayne Rooney era at Manchester United has ended, but the Romelu Lukaku era has just begun. The big striker’s arrival also coincides with United’s return to the Champions League after two campaigns in the Europa League. Lukaku’s addition to the squad should only improve the Red Devils’ chances of making a deep run in Europe’s premier club competition, perhaps even one back to the semi-finals for the first time since 2010-11.
Where and How He’ll Play
As of writing, we’ve only seen a brief Lukaku appearance in a friendly against LA Galaxy and a goal-scoring second game against Real Salt Lake. He played where he’s played most of his career and where most expect him to be in the line up every match day: up top in the centre.
His partner in strike at United will likely be Marcus Rashford, probably playing in a more wider role.
While the new no. 9 has insisted he is different from the old one (Zlatan), his almost equally as big body should fit in seamlessly with the system that Jose Mourinho developed last season.
As most of the squad from last season’s long Europa campaign knows, a successful European run requires a side that’s deep beyond just the starting XI.
While between Rooney and Zlatan (assuming he doesn’t return like he wants) United is losing 35% of their goal haul from last season, if Lukaku continues with his 2016-17 form (26 goals in 39 overall appearances) the two shouldn’t be missed too sorely.
The rest of the squad largely remains the same and Lukaku’s ability to draw defenders away from the action might lead to more scoring opportunities for Rashford, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Overall the majority of the squad will have at least one European campaign under their belt, including Lukaku who was the 2014/15 Europa League’s top scorer (tied) with eight goals.
Gauging The Competition
In the eyes of many UK sportsbooks, Lukaku and United’s chances of winning the Champions League outright are almost as good as anyone else’s.
At 13/1, the Red Devils are currently listed only behind the likes of the three-most recent clubs to win the contest (Real Madrid, Barca, Bayern), last season’s runner up (Juventus), and rivals City who have also had a blockbuster summer in the transfer market. Not bad for a club that’s finished outside the top four the past two seasons and that will be led by a player that hasn’t seen UCL action since 2010-11.
Their true chances will depend on what comes of the August 24th group stage draw of course. By virtue of the pot system, United will avoid playing against Barca, Atletico Madrid, PSG, Borussia Dortmund, Porto in the group stage, and City due to being in the same federation. There will likely be some road bumps and at least one perplexing result in the group stage, but they should reach the knockout round with relative ease under anything but extremely unlucky circumstances.
Outside of 20 scoreless minutes and a missed penalty kick against Bayern in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup, Lukaku doesn’t have too much previous experience against continental Europe’s biggest clubs. But the 2016/17 PFA Team of the Year member never had an issue drawing blood against the Prem’s top clubs, as evident by his 19 career goals against last season’s top six finishers.
Even amid questions about his fitness, attitude, supporting cast, and the all the challenges that come with a European campaign, Lukaku has the vote of confidence from at least from prolific goalscorer:
“When you play at Manchester United and other big clubs in the Champions League you’ve got to be right on point,” said former Everton and Arsenal striker Kevin Campbell to Sky Sports.
“He’s going to have to improve his game and I’m sure he will.”