Romelu Lukaku feels his decisive impact from the bench against Aston Villa was exactly what he required as he returned to action following a frustrating time out with injury and Covid-19.
The Belgian has not started a Premier League game since the 1-0 win at Brentford in mid-October, as he missed more than a month with the ankle injury he suffered in the Champions League win over Malmo, and was then ruled out again following a positive Covid test, just as he was approaching full fitness.
Those frustrations perhaps explain why he seemed so determined to make his mark on yesterday’s match away at Aston Villa, when he came off the bench at half-time with the scores level to make his first appearance since that positive Covid test, showing what we had been missing by scoring to put us in front for the first time in the game and then winning the penalty which made the three points safe late on.
‘I think I needed a performance like this,’ said Lukaku after the game. ‘It’s been difficult getting back in. Every footballer wants to be on the pitch, but I kept working hard. It was good for us to win and, for myself personally, I’m happy with my performance and I have to push on.’
His two most eye-catching moments at Villa Park came as he outsmarted Tyrone Mings to make the space to head in his goal just over 10 minutes after being introduced, and then the powerful run which beat two defenders and led to the penalty.
Lukaku admitted they showed two very different parts to his game – one the instinctive drive towards goal he has always enjoyed and the other the clever centre-forward play which he has worked hard to add to his skillset.
‘The goal was just movement,’ he explained. ‘For balls like crosses and stuff, throughout the years my movement in the box has gotten better. I try to be less static, I try to be on the move all the time. The cross was a brilliant cross and I just came across him.
‘For the penalty, that’s my preferred action, running into space and using my speed and my power. The defender made contact and then Jorgi finished it off for us.’
The 3-1 Boxing Day win over Villa kept us within six points of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table, joint with second-placed Liverpool, although we have played one game more.
The striker feels that underlines the fact we are the challengers chasing the champions, with our latest match the first of many vital fixtures we need to win if we are to recover from the dropped points over the last month and catch the leaders.
‘We are the hunters now. It’s clear that the last results for us were not the best and now we have to chase. We had to do a job, we had to win the game.
‘It was not easy for us but in the end our quality came through and we won the game. Now we need to keep pushing on. We have to make sure that we treat every game like a final, win, and that’s it.’