Mourinho defends Lukaku penalty snub in Manchester United’s Benfica win

Manchester United are a point away from the Champions League knockout phase with this fourth win from four Group A matches. This is a fine position but José Mourinho cannot have aided the struggling Romelu Lukaku’s confidence after insisting Daley Blind take United’s second penalty of the night.

On 78 minutes Marcus Rashford’s fine burst secured the spot-kick but when Lukaku stood over it at first he did not give way. This caused Mourinho annoyance before, after a brief intervention from Ander Herrera, Blind finally stepped up to smack the ball home.

Immediately, Mourinho made a gesture again to signal his disquiet, as he did via the shush to camera at the close of Saturday’s win over Tottenham Hotspur. Asked about the yapping-hand action, the Portuguese could not recall it. “I don’t remember that,” he said.

Before this contest the manager described Lukaku as “untouchable” so it seemed an odd decision to deny him a chance to break a five-game scoring drought, especially with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday next up. Yet he said: “I don’t understand why everyone asks me the same, I am paid to take decisions good or bad. In the first half the decision was bad [as Anthony Martial missed one].

“In the second half I made another decision and I don’t see the drama, the penalty taker for this match was Martial, he was not even on the pitch when the second one was [given]. Romelu wants to take, he has the personality to take the responsibility, Herrera was the same. But my decision [was] based on training in the past couple of days, the players respected my decision and that was it, end of story.”

The problem is it may not be, as this all followed Mourinho’s pre-match plea to supporters. “I hope some of you enjoy the game more than some of you did against Tottenham,” he said. It referenced Saturday’s shush and the 54-year-old’s belief that Lukaku had not been given enough support by fans during the win, further making his choice of Blind over the Belgian for the spot-kick seem jarring.

Mourinho made six changes for the game. Scott McTominay was given a full debut in the competition and only a second start in United colours. Also in were Martial, Matteo Darmian, Blind, Jesse Lingard, and Juan Mata. The 18-year-old Mile Svilar was Benfica’s goalkeeper again despite his mistake allowing Rashford’s winner in the reverse game in Lisbon a fortnight ago. Rui Vitoria’s pointless side were the same as then apart from the suspended Luisão being replaced by Jardel.

Benfica threatened first, via a corner won by Douglas off Blind, although David De Gea gathered it with ease. Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 had Lingard as the No10, splitting Mata and Martial right and left. The latter, the scorer of Saturday’s winner, won an early free-kick after being chopped down by Rúben Dias and was bright throughout. Some Martial magic came when his lightning feet bedazzled Douglas, turning him inside then out, before the right-back went to ground with him.

Gediminas Mazeika pointed to the spot despite the away side’s protestations to the official. Now, though, there was a moment of redemption for Svilar as he dived to his right to save Martial’s poor attempt of a penalty.

Mourinho’s men were hardly in second gear and took until the half-hour to create an opening for Lukaku. He strode forward and forced a save from Svilar. Within seconds Lukaku was put in again but could not direct a header.

Benfica’s Mile Svilar saves a penalty from Anthony Martial in the Champions League Group A match.
Benfica’s Mile Svilar saves a penalty from Anthony Martial in the Champions League Group A match. Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP

Mourinho’s plea for fans to make Old Trafford more of bear pit was not reaping dividends. The home support was muted again and Benfica’s travelling contingent sang loudly throughout.

By the interval this had been the United of recent outings: patchy, disjointed, searching in vain for a high gear. Still, as is the way with Mourinho’s sides, they had a lead: Nemanja Matic’s 30-yard shot pinged off Svilar’s left post, hit the unfortunate keeper’s shoulder and went in.

It might have been two but the misfiring Lukaku failed to finish when clear in on Svilar. United continued to perform below par and Lukaku looked in need of a goal. He was lucky to be awarded a foul when a first touch had the ball bouncing hard off him before being scythed down.

Mourinho took off Mata to stiffen midfield with Herrera and Rashford’s 15-minute cameo on his 20th birthday featured his winning of the penalty.

Again, though, the conversation will be all about Mourinho and why he denied Lukaku the chance to break what is now a six-game barren run.

Of the final two games, Mourinho said: “What I know is we want to win the maximum points, we didn’t qualify yet, so we are going to try to win the next two matches and finish with 18 points. It would be nice.”

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Man Utd 4 9 12
2 Basel 4 3 6
3 CSKA Moscow 4 -3 6
4 Benfica 4 -9 0