LONDON • Jose Mourinho has described Romelu Lukaku as "untouchable in my team", with the Manchester United manager saying he has to protect his players when they deserve it.
"Romelu is one of the players who should be untouchable in terms of respect from everyone," he was reported as saying on the club website yesterday ahead of the Champions League Group A match with bottom club Benfica today. "What he does for the team is fantastic and to play football for a striker is not just about scoring goals.
"For me, he is untouchable in my team and I think he should be untouchable in the support and the respect he deserves from the fans."
Lukaku is going through a three-match drought after having scored seven goals in as many Premier League games, and his fading goalscoring exploits along with his underwhelming record in big games have been criticised.
After Saturday's 1-0 home win over Tottenham, Mourinho was disappointed that Lukaku had not been given vociferous support. The centre-forward created his second assist in two league games, for Anthony Martial's 81st-minute winner, and Mourinho also pointed to how the player was difficult for Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to deal with.
The decision to withdraw Marcus Rashford, rather than Lukaku, for Martial in the 70th minute attracted loud boos.
The Portuguese boss responded to critics by holding a finger to his lips after the final whistle but was puzzled by the fans' dissent.
Goals Manchester United have scored after the 80-minute mark this season.
He said: "I really don't understand some reactions why."
"Are they Red Devils? Sometimes I don't know because they (Lukaku and Martial) work amazingly well.
"Sometimes he (Martial) starts and his contribution is good."
It is no coincidence that United keep scoring late goals - 11 after the 80th minute already in the league this season. And Martial is part of that game plan: The Frenchman has come off the bench four times to score this season.
He and Rashford will again have to fight it out for the left-wing slot as United welcome Benfica as leaders with maximum points, although Mourinho said that the duo could play together.
He said: "We played Marcus and Anthony together in Swansea, one week ago, so yes, they can play together, that's no problem. What we cannot do is play with 12 players, and we cannot play with everybody at the same time."
If United win, they are guaranteed qualification for the knockout stage, should Basel avoid defeat against CSKA Moscow.
The Red Devils go to Chelsea on Sunday in the league but Mourinho said: "Nobody here thinks about another match than Benfica. Nobody here thinks about Chelsea."
"Ten points would be okay to qualify, but our main aim is to qualify first in the group.
"The statistics are what they are but Basel have had good results against CSKA and Benfica, a draw is not bad, but Benfica will give us a difficult match.
"They have their own ambition and pride, we just want to get to the last 16 by finishing first."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS
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