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Lukaku & Mourinho: Why Man Utd crisis will continue until manager changes

COMMENT: So Romelu Lukaku fans. Is that tree still standing? Because it's taken an absolute hammering over the last 24 hours.

Tree? Well, for Tribalfootball.com regulars, they'll know we're referring to the description Nico Claesen gave Lukaku earlier this season.

And on Sunday night, the Manchester United striker's confidence will have been shaken to it's roots. Two assists reads well. But not if they're for the opposition. Football stats can be a cruel tool. Cherry picked to elicit ridicule. But it has to be highlighted. Six completed passes for Lukaku on the night. Six. He actually created more chances for City when near the ball than his own team.

And then there was Ederson's point blank save at the end. Lukaku had the chance to rescue a point. To save face. But his reaction was to smack the ball straight at Manchester City's goalkeeper - and with it the chance and points were lost. Another big game. Another massive flop from the £75m man. This was never in the script.

Ask those close to Lukaku and they insist nothing has changed. In the studio, the pundits are convinced his confidence must be rock bottom. But a word with those who have worked with him in Belgium insist - as difficult it is to accept watching on - none of this will be dragging on the striker.

Claesen, the former Tottenham and Belgium World Cup striker, crystallised general Belgian opinion about Lukaku earlier this season.

"He does not let the outside world get to him," he said. "Of course, as a professional footballer you always have backers and opponents. High trees catch a lot of wind.

"But as time progresses positive things will take the upper hand on the negative."

Can you believe him? It's difficult given what we're now seeing. And it does look like it's going to get worse before it gets better for the striker. Especially if we use history as a barometer.

Cycle back 22 years and there was another United No9 who split opinion at Old Trafford: Andy Cole. Lukaku was being celebrated earlier this season for matching King Goal's debut season feats with United. But what wasn't mentioned was Cole's run of goals after joining from Newcastle United midseason didn't kickoff until a month into his Old Trafford career. The doubts you now hear pedaled about Lukaku: a poor first touch; not a natural finisher; no team player... well we had the very same for Cole - and not just in those first weeks.

The distrust even reached the national team, where Cole was disgracefully used and discarded by Terry Venables after one substitute appearance against Uruguay before Euro96. Cole had one chance in that game. Similar to Lukaku's effort against Ederson. And blew it. Years later, an England coaching figure would confess to this column: "Tel just didn't rate him (Cole). He didn't want him. The media really made the selection for him. And after that miss... well that was enough to get them off his (Venables') back."

Why the history lesson? Well, this is where the concern about Lukaku gets real. At United, under Sir Alex Ferguson, those who believed in Cole and his ability were always confident he'd come good. The chances would always be there. It was just up to him to put them away - as he had done with Kevin Keegan's Newcastle.

In contrast, can anyone genuinely argue that Jose Mourinho's approach offers the same sort of help to Lukaku and his current rut? Mourinho's system does the Belgian no favours - especially in big games like Sunday.

That the most memorable piece of praise from the manager in recent weeks is Lukaku's efforts "at left-back" really says it all. Unlike with Fergie, you just wonder how Mourinho's system can help Lukaku snap his slump.

But, it has to be said, it's a system that works. It worked with Zlatan Ibrahimovic last season. As it did with Diego Costa a year before. But at 24, Lukaku's game isn't robust enough to meet his manager's demands. And with that inexperience, comes the doubt. Again, this isn't the personality of Ibra or Diego. Lukaku is still a young player learning his trade. But he's also a young player being slaughtered by a section of his own fans over his current shortcomings.

Cole copped the same. But there was always the next game. Even the next chance. For his supporters, under Fergie, it was always going to happen for him.

For Lukaku, you can't say the same. Not under the present system. Mourinho needs to change it - for the sake of his No9's future.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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