JOSE MOURINHO has made Romelu Lukaku the first of his Manchester United ‘untouchables’.
The former Chelsea boss caused a stir in his first term at Stamford Bridge when he listed the players whose place in the side was beyond doubt.
Now he says Lukaku is the one at Old Trafford whose inclusion cannot be questioned.
Against Spurs on Saturday some fans wanted the Belgian, rather than Marcus Rashford, taken off when the switch was being made to bring on Anthony Martial.
The decision was booed by a section of the home support.
But yesterday Mourinho launched an even greater defence of the big striker than he had after the game — in which Lukaku set up a late winner.
The United manager said: “Romelu is one of the players that should be untouchable in terms of the respect of everyone.
“He is playing extremely well for us and, yes, I have to protect my players when I feel they deserve it.
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“Romelu always deserves it because what he does for the team is fantastic.
“Playing football for a striker isn’t just about scoring goals.
“So, untouchable in my team and he should be untouchable in support from the fans.
“But fans are fans, they pay the ticket and do what they want.”
Back in 2006, Mourinho listed his untouchable players at Chelsea in response to questions about possible pressure from Roman Abramovich to play Andrei Shevchenko.
Mourinho said: “If Abramovich doesn’t trust the manager, he has enough money to sack me.
“Sheva is not untouchable because of the way he is playing.
“I play the best players at the time.
“Claude Makelele, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard are untouchable because of the way they play, not because I love them.
“Michael Ballack is untouchable because of the way he plays.
“John Terry is untouchable. Ricardo Carvalho, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba — they are untouchable.”
Shevchenko, Chelsea’s £30.8million signing from AC Milan, was largely seen as Abramovich’s signing but flopped at Stamford Bridge.
Lukaku certainly cannot be regarded as a flop at United since his initial £75m switch from Everton.
He scored 11 goals in his first ten games, including the European Super Cup, but has not hit the target in his last five appearances.
Lukaku, 24, did look to be having a quiet game against Spurs, hence the crowd reaction to the substitution — but not according to Mourinho.
He said: “Ask Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier if he was quiet — and they are some of the best centre-backs in football.
“I don’t think he’s quiet at all. The point is scoring or not scoring because in the end that is what people analyse sometimes.”
He certainly came to life late on in that big win over Spurs, hitting the post with a header and then nodding David De Gea’s long punt into the path of substitute Martial for the 81st-minute winner.
It was a moment that showed the tactical mastery of Mourinho.
Rashford wears the defence down, Martial comes on to finish them off and Lukaku stays on because he can do what he did on Saturday.
In many ways he is one of those old-fashioned strikers who, while you might forget he is there in some games, then pops up at the crucial moment.
Mourinho bought Lukaku to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and wait for his moment. To turn those draws from last season into victories this term.
Which is why he will be the first name on the teamsheet again tonight as United face Benfica with qualification for the knockout stages beckoning.
Lukaku did not find the net in Lisbon a fortnight ago but got one in the 3-0 victory at home to Basel and two in the 4-1 win at CSKA Moscow.
That perfect record of three wins from three in Group A means if they triumph tonight and CSKA do not beat Basel, United will be through to the next stage with a game to spare.
A draw could even be good enough if CSKA lose.
Benfica, meanwhile, are bottom of the table with no points from their three games.
Yet Mourinho still believes the Portuguese side have been their toughest opponents.
He said: “The players feel it on the pitch when they play, and they 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.”
MANCHESTER UNITED (likely): De Gea; Darmian, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Matic; Mata, Mkhitaryan, Rashford; Lukaku.
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