While Sunday afternoon was a great occasion for Manchester United fans as they celebrated their team’s 2-1 win over Arsenal in Arsene Wenger’s last visit to Old Trafford, it wasn’t a perfect day.
The injury to Romelu Lukaku means that the run-up to the FA Cup final is now more nerve-wracking than it should be. The Belgium international has 34 goals and assists this season: he’s not only the club’s top scorer but only Paul Pogba has created more goals than him, suggesting his absence would be felt heavily.
After watching him hobble off just five minutes into the second half, United fans are now faced with the possibility of not being given another opportunity to rub it in Chelsea’s faces that they missed out on Lukaku and only managed Alvaro Morata as their consolation prize, with the player a doubt for the final.
Jose Mourinho was non-committal after the final whistle on Sunday, claiming Lukaku may well recover from his foot injury in the three weeks before Wembley, but repeated “I don’t know” when pushed by journalists. The club were reportedly optimistic ahead of the scan results, but it’s not just a case of him being fit to play on May 19; will he be match-fit and ready?
United have just three games remaining this season, facing Brighton this Friday followed by West Ham and Watford in the final week. Lukaku therefore needs to be back and playing well in at least one of these games if he’s going to have a reasonable chance of making a difference against Chelsea and hopefully scoring against them again.
Still, United aren’t entirely limited in their options even if Mourinho may be more difficult to convince of that. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have been allowed to leave the club in mid-season but Anthony Martial is waiting in the wings for another opportunity to shine at Wembley.
In his first season at the club, he scored an injury-time winner against Everton to put United in the FA Cup final. After 93 minutes on the pitch, Martial was ready to pounce when Ander Herrera poked the ball through to him and his finish was totally composed. United won the trophy that season, after going 12 years without lifting it, and Martial’s intervention was vital.
Under Jose Mourinho, Martial has failed to reach the same heights as he did under Louis van Gaal, with United’s manager seemingly unimpressed. It’s a difficult one to understand: Mourinho claims he selects his team on form but after a brilliant spell in January, Martial was dumped from the starting line-up regardless. If three goals and two assists in five games isn’t enough to warrant a place in the team, Martial would be right to question what it is that Mourinho wants for him.
Martial has been voted as the player of the month by the fans in three of the nine months this season, with his performances at the beginning of the campaign (largely off the bench) suggesting he was going to enjoy another season like his first, but it hasn’t worked out that way. There has been plenty of speculation that the France international will leave in the summer, which is devastating for many United fans who know what he is capable of and have high hopes for his future. The idea of seeing him sold and banging in goals elsewhere is pretty frustrating.
Yet if ever there were an occasion where Martial could prove his worth to Mourinho, it would be when scoring to win the manager his second FA Cup.
Martial has played in wide positions almost every time he’s featured for United under Mourinho, but shone when leading the line under Van Gaal and supporting the pacier Marcus Rashford in the latter months of the season. As a player who has shown he can remain totally cool when the pressure is on, if given 90 minutes up front, he could cause some real damage to Antonio Conte’s team. Despite his more limited playing time this season, he’s still managed a respectable 11 goals and seven assists in all competitions, which works out to one every 102 minutes he’s been on the pitch.
Lukaku may well be fit for Wembley and that will be the ideal scenario for Mourinho. You could even imagine the manager preferring a slightly off-the-boil Lukaku to a totally ready Martial.
Yet while many United fans will be desperate for Lukaku to return in time, there will also be plenty who aren’t too disappointed if it means Martial gets another opportunity to do the business at Wembley, sadly, possibly for the last time in a United shirt.
Scott is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.