The two summer signings were the only players praised by their manager during Friday's diatribe, and they took United to the FA Cup semis on Saturday
Jose Mourinho’s 12-minute rant on Friday was largely an impassioned defence of his own record as Manchester United manager rather than a broadside supporting his players. And, when his current squad did come into it, he picked out Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku as the two players worthy of unquestionable praise.
“I prefer to say that Matic and Lukaku are performing at a high level since day one until the last match. I cannot tell you the ones that are not performing,” said the under-pressure boss as he momentarily broke away from talking about the ‘football heritage’ in the wake of Tuesday’s limp exit from the Champions League at the hands of Sevilla.
Barely 24 hours on from that extraordinary press conference, the two players he had referenced rammed home Mourinho’s point for him by providing the key moments as United saw off Brighton & Hove Albion 2-0 at Old Trafford to reach the FA Cup semi-finals.
With the game going nowhere shortly before half-time, Matic spotted Lukaku waiting for the ball at the far post and whipped in an inch-perfect cross for the Belgian to nod beyond Tim Krul. The cross from the Serbian was the stand-out piece of top quality in a game which largely failed to warm up the fans who had ventured out in the freezing temperatures.
For Lukaku it was a 25th goal in his debut season with United. He has now been directly involved in 14 goals in his 14 appearances in 2018, scoring 10 and assisting four. Considering the up-and-down performances of some of United’s senior players during that time it is hard to suggest the Belgian is anything but their go-to guy right now.
The 24-year-old has also got a taste for FA Cup goals. He has netted five this season in four appearances and has a total of 12 in his last 11 matches in the competition. On the weekend of April 21/22 he will get the chance to extend that record in a Wembley semi-final.
With seven minutes to go, Matic crowned the win with a back-post header from Ashley Young’s free-kick. It may have been harsh on Brighton, but the two scorers were both deserving of goals.
United will undoubtedly have to play far better in their last-four fixture than they did here. But, while some will point to their tame performance against an energetic but toothless Brighton side as the latest example of Mourinho’s tendency to hit the default setting of containment over entertainment, there was always likely to be a sober feeling about their return to the pitch after Tuesday’s season-defining disappointment.
United only had two shots at goal all night to Brighton’s four but they made them count. This was always going to be about the result more than anything as United looked to bounce back.
And, with the goal-scoring heroes being the two men he had identified as the only men he couldn’t criticise, Mourinho had an extra reason to smile after his most testing week yet as Manchester United manager.