Yet manager Jose Mourinho continually backed his first-choice striker, appreciating the United No. 9’s work rate and contribution to the cause even as the goals dried up.
Mourinho’s assertion that the goals would come soon enough may be about to come true, as Lukaku scored his 13th of the season to help United earn a come-from-behind victory against CSKA Moscow that ensured the Red Devils topped their group.
Here’s an in-depth look at how the star striker performed on Tuesday.
Goals – 1
Assists – 0
Shots – 3
Shots on target – 2
Pass Accuracy – 82%
Key Passes – 2
Touches – 31
Dribbles – 0
Lukaku held up the ball well and, in the first half, created two or three decent chances for his team-mates that should have seen United race out to a comfortable lead, although he missed the one presentable chance he had of his own.
The Belgian went missing a bit in the second-half as United’s best attacking play seemed to bypass him. That, was until, Paul Pogba picked him out with a perfect pass, a chance that Lukaku gobbled up to equalise. Soon after, he set up United’s go-ahead goal with a flick-on from a long ball.
4th min, CHANCE: Lukaku did well to control Juan Mata‘s pass, then turned and set about creating panic in the CSKA defence. Spotting Marcus Rashford‘s run across him, the Belgian found his strike partner with a cleverly disguised through ball, only for Rashford’s subsequent shot to hit the post.
20th min, SHOT: The 24-year-old probably should have scored. Luke Shaw hit a crisp volley which CSKA keeper Igor Akinfeev did well to save, but Lukaku was on hand for the rebound. The ball just wouldn’t come down quickly enough, forcing Lukaku to attempt a scissor kick which he couldn’t connect with cleanly, allowing Akinfeev to save again.
64th min, GOAL: Pogba floated in a delightful box, spotting Lukaku’s run, and the Belgian obliged by finishing the move off, stretching out his leg to get his outside of the boot onto the ball and guide it into the net.
There were times when you could see that Lukaku’s confidence was low, and others when you saw exactly why Mourinho has been quick to praise him. He linked up United’s attacking play well, created chances for his team-mates, and, although he missed his first opportunity to score, when another came to him, he buried it.
CSKA proved a more stubborn side than expected, given the 4-1 win United had gotten in Moscow in the reverse fixture, but Lukaku made sure his side got the win.
The 30-year-old Spain playmaker has won almost every major honour in his storied career with Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea and Spain, including the World Cup — but the European Cup is the exception.
Fabregas was initially out of favour last season in Conte’s first campaign. He had made only four appearances at this stage last year; this season it is 18 after he showed his worth.
“I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t really part of his (Conte’s) initial plans and at that point you can do two things.
“You can just give up and accept you are not going to be part of the team or the club in the future. The other is what I did, put your head down and be humble, show him that he’s wrong.
“My relationship with the manager (now) is fantastic. He trusts me. He knows exactly what I can give to the team.”
The Blues secured their place in the last 16 by winning at Qarabag last month and can finish top with victory over Atletico at Stamford Bridge.
“Hopefully it will be Chelsea’s year (in the Champions League),” added Fabregas, who reached the 2006 final with Arsenal and has also reached the semi-finals.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) December 4, 2017
“We’ll try our best to be consistent enough to reach the final and hopefully win.”
Atletico need to win to have any chance to advance, but are reliant on Qarabag avoiding defeat at Roma to reach the draw on December 11.
If the Azerbaijan side are beaten, Atletico would fall into the Europa League, irrespective of the result at Chelsea.
Asked if that would provide additional satisfaction, given the saga surrounding Diego Costa which saw the striker return after three years at Stamford Bridge, Conte was evasive.
The Italian, who is again without defender David Luiz (knee), said: “I think we must have great respect for Atletico Madrid and for the whole team, not only for one, two, three players.
“If the whole team after (Tuesday’s) game has to play Europa League, it can happen.”
Costa will be eligible to play for Atletico from January, when their transfer embargo is lifted.
Left-back Filipe Luis, who spent the 2014-15 campaign at Chelsea before returning to Atletico, said: “It is frustrating seeing him playing like an animal (in training), but he can’t play.”
Boss Diego Simeone insists Atletico’s sole focus will be on beating Chelsea.
“We don’t have to be looking about what happens in Rome,” Simeone said.
“We just have to think about us. It’s a personal challenge to fight for everything we’ve worked for these last few years.”
Chelsea head into their final Group C game in the Champions League with Atletico Madrid in top spot.
A win for the Blues at Stamford Bridge will guarantee them top spot.
Here are a few talking points ahead of the encounter.
IS WINNING OVER-RATED?
In a peculiar way, it may not be in either teams’ interests to go all-out for three points on Tuesday night. Atletico need nothing less than a win if they are to have any hope of qualification but is that really what they want?
Of course, the financial implications of advancing from the group stages of the Champions League make it more than worth their while but in terms of achieving success this season, elimination may not be the worst thing for their campaign.
Atletico have struggled to find their best form this season but so have Barcelona and Real Madrid. A recent turn in results has seen them edge closer to the Catalans in the La Liga race, one they’re capable of winning if it gets their full attention.
It’s hard to envisage Diego Simeone’s side winning the Champions League given their flaws but run in the league if left unimpeded by continental distractions, is achievable.
Meanwhile, should Chelsea win and top the group, their potential opponents in the next round include Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus or Sporting Lisbon, Sevilla, Porto or Leipzig. Maybe being runners-up isn’t all that bad.
HAZARD AND GRIEZMANN ARE TWO OF A KIND
The last time these two sides met, Eden Hazard was making only his second start since returning from injury and Antoine Griezmann was in a patchy run of form at best. While both made contributions on the night, they have stepped it up since, and have started to return to their best.
Several similarities can be drawn to the two attackers. Both are diminutive, possess phenomenal bursts of acceleration, excellent touch and close control and a penchant for goal-scoring. They’re also incredibly intelligent and creative.
Hazard’s recent change in position to playing just off the striker has only extended the comparison between the two with the Frenchman also doing his best work operating behind another centre foward.
With the two clashing once more, it will be interesting to see which one comes out on top now that they’re back to their old selves.
CHELSEA LOOK TO BURST ATLETICO’S BUBBLE.. AGAIN
In the earlier fixture at the Metropolitano, Chelsea snatched a 2-1 victory as Michy Batshuayi scored the winner in the 94th minute.
That ended Atletico’s 11-match unbeaten run. Since then, they’ve gone 13 games unbeaten and will be heading into this meeting with the Blues with a hint of trepidation. The fact that they are yet to score away from home in the Champions League this season doesn’t bode well for them either.
Simeone’s side have only just begun to get their mojo back and a defeat now could do some serious damage to their confidence.