MOURINHO DEFENDS UNDERFIRE LUKAKU AHEAD OF BENFICA CLASH
All those who know Mourinho know he is a man who speaks his mind. It has landed him in all sorts of problems in the past but he remains an unapologetic believer in being blunt. He has told Manchester United fans that £75million striker Romelu Lukaku should be ‘untouchable’ from criticism and deserves more respect.
Mourinho vowed to protect Lukaku after he interpreted supporters booing his decision to replace Marcus Rashford with Anthony Martial during Saturday’s win over Tottenham as a slight on the big Belgian.
‘For me, he’s untouchable in my team and I think he should be untouchable in the support and the respect he deserves from the fans,’ said Mourinho ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Benfica at Old Trafford.
‘Look, the fans are the fans and I also said that the fans pay for their tickets and are free to express themselves the way they want to express.
‘But my job is to protect my players when I feel they deserve it.
‘And Romelu always deserves it because what he does for the team is fantastic
Lukaku scored 16 times in his first 13 appearances for club and country this season, but the goals have dried up this month.
Mourinho defended the player after the Spurs game at the weekend and felt compelled on Monday to point out that he still makes an important contribution to the team.
‘Playing football for a striker isn’t just about scoring goals,’ added the United boss.
‘It’s not one goal or one ball that hits the post or one save by the opposition keeper that can make Romelu’s contribution below the top level. He is playing extremely well for us.
I think Romelu is one of the players that should be untouchable in terms of the respect of everyone.’
When it was put to Mourinho that Lukaku is an old-fashioned striker who will have the occasional quiet game, he replied: ‘I don’t think he’s quiet at all.
‘Ask (Toby) Alderweireld and (Jan) Vertonghen and (Eric) Dier if he was quiet, and they are some of the best centre backs in football.
‘I think the point is scoring goals or not scoring goals, because in the end this is what people sometimes analyse. But he’s not quiet at all.’
United defender Eric Bailly also gave Lukaku his backing on Monday when he spoke at Carrington in the build-up to the Benfica game.
‘I think, like many people, that Romelu is a great forward,’ said Bailly.
‘I’ve played against him and now have the fortune to be playing with him. He is very important for us.
‘Everybody can see everything is going well for him and I hope he can continue this scoring run and helping the team as he has been doing.’
Mourinho has the option to play Rashford and Martial up front on Tuesday, and rest Lukaku ahead of Sunday’s game at champions Chelsea.
‘We played Marcus and Anthony together at Swansea (in the Carabao Cup) one week ago so, yes, they can play together. That’s no problem,’ he said.
But with the Champions League tie ahead, he said ‘nobody here thinks about another match other than Benfica. Nobody here thinks about Chelsea. So it’s just Benfica, the Champions League and only the Champions League.’
After winning their first three Group A games, United can clinch a place in the knockout stages on Tuesday if they better CSKA Moscow’s result against Basel.
Benfica, in contrast, have lost all their games and were beaten 1-0 by United in Lisbon a fortnight ago, but Mourinho still believes they pose a bigger threat than the other two clubs in the group.
He added: ‘The players felt like it was quite easy to win against CSKA and Basel but difficult to beat Benfica. The game could easily have been 0-0 or 1-1. Benfica were much better than those two teams tactically and collectively.
‘Our aim tomorrow is to qualify. Ten points would be okay to qualify but our main aim is to finish first in the group.
‘A draw is not bad but Benfica will give us a difficult match. They have their own ambition and pride and will try to win.’
Bailly warned his team-mates not to underestimate the Portuguese champions after United needed a fortuitous goal from Rashford, carried over the line by young goalkeeper Mile Svilar, to win in Lisbon.
‘The bad thing for Benfica is they’re not in such a good moment but that doesn’t mean they’ll just roll over for us tomorrow,’ said the Ivory Coast defender.
‘We have to be cautious and get our fourth win.’