MANCHESTER, England — It is often in the most testing circumstances that you find out the most about a player and whether he is the man who can make a difference when it matters, so Manchester United’s 1-0 Champions League defeat against Barcelona on Wednesday at Old Trafford can be regarded only as a bad night for Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian forward’s agent, Federico Pastorello, you might have noticed recently, has left the door open to a move away from United for his client this summer after struggling to convince Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that he merits a regular starting spot in his favoured centre-forward role.
But having been given the chance to show off his credentials to United’s new permanent manager against the Spanish champions, Lukaku once again fell short when up against world-class defenders and showed himself to be a square peg in a round hole in a team that is at its best only when its front players can combine pace and movement to threaten the opposition. Lukaku was replaced by Anthony Martial after 67 minutes of this quarterfinal first leg, with the former Everton forward doing little or nothing to justify his selection.
There was a telling moment during the first half that highlighted why the 25-year-old is not compatible with Solskjaer’s game plan.
With the ball having gone out of play for a throw-in, United captain Ashley Young retrieved it quickly with the intention of catching Barca by surprise with a quick throw to the edge of the penalty area. But as he searched for Lukaku, the striker was walking slowly toward the 18-yard box with his back to Young, who raised his arms in frustration at the £90 million forward after he instead threw the ball short to Marcus Rashford.
Lukaku doesn’t move or think quickly enough for this United team, and that is why, for Solskjaer to have any hope of masterminding a victory in the return leg at the Camp Nou, the manager must go with pace and movement up front in the form of the three players who ended the game in those positions: Rashford, Martial and Jesse Lingard.
In the final 23 minutes, United weaved in and out of the Barca back line and looked capable of scoring. Tired legs, perhaps, played a factor for the visitors, but the difference was stark.
Solskjaer was quick to dispense with Marouane Fellaini in January — the only United player to score in five Champions League home games this season — after realising that the midfielder was simply not mobile enough for his style of play.
Lukaku has shown glimpses of being able to offer something under Solskjaer, with his two goals in the round-of-16 victory against Paris Saint-Germain and a spirited performance in the FA Cup win at Arsenal genuine highlights, but he disappoints more than he impresses. The best performances under Solskjaer have come when Rashford, Martial and Lingard have been given licence to play together and buzz around opposition defences.
For United to have any hope of a win in Barcelona that would eclipse their remarkable 3-1 success last month in Paris, they have to go with the players who will give them the best chance of scoring on the counterattack, and Lukaku is not in that group.
United have never beaten Barca in the Camp Nou, but despite losing the first leg courtesy of Luke Shaw’s early own goal, they will travel to Catalonia next Wednesday believing they can end that barren run to reach the semifinals. Plenty needs to go in United’s favour for Solskjaer’s players to book a likely last-four encounter with Liverpool, who lead Porto 2-0 ahead of next Tuesday’s second leg in Estadio do Dragao, but after coming face to face with Lionel Messi & Co. at Old Trafford, they should travel without fear.
“It’s a tough one,” Solskjaer said. “We’ll go there with the knowledge we can score. We go there with one thing in my mind: We have to score.
“I don’t think we hit the target tonight, and that’s a disappointment, but we go [to Barcelona] with work to be done but chances.”
Messi is clearly the big threat to United. At Old Trafford, the Argentine was subdued, and United can take some credit for that with the way their players crowded him out when he had the ball. Chris Smalling’s robust first-half challenge, which left Messi with a bloody nose, might also have had an effect. If Messi is similarly quiet next week, United will live in hope, but if he produces one of his magical nights, United can forget it.
But at 1-0, the tie is not over, and United have already shown in the Champion League this season — by winning in Paris and against Juventus in Turin during the group stages — that they can score, and win, away from home against the toughest opponents.
Team selection will be crucial, though, and Solskjaer cannot turn to Lukaku in the Camp Nou. Movement and speed of thought are crucial in the modern game, where the old-style centre-forward has become a rarity, but United have the personnel to hurt Barca. Solskjaer just needs to make the right call on his forwards to give United a chance.