Romelu Lukaku becoming the target man that Man United have needed
Romelu Lukaku just scored the goal that takes Belgium to next year's World Cup in Russia. His strike -- a beautifully angled header into the far corner, from a right-wing cross -- was the most newsworthy thing about his performance in a 2-1 win over Greece, but arguably not the most impressive.
Playing away from home, Lukaku was every bit the target man that Manchester United wish him to be. Frequently criticised for his lack of movement and the poor quality of his first touch, he roamed from flank to flank, and when the ball found its way to his feet he mostly retained possession with calm and confidence.
What's more, he often did so when accompanied by more than one defender, and his passing was not conservative -- he looked to spread the play and to execute the early through-ball where possible. All in all, it was an accomplished showing, and one which further confirmed that he has been a sound investment for United.
Of course, there is still some way to go before Lukaku repays the £75 million spent on him -- if indeed, in a market which has recently seen such staggering sums, such a feat is possible. However, the early indications are extremely promising.
The critiques of his all-round game, made by commentators as illustrious as Thierry Henry (one of his coaches for Belgium) have been public and not always without foundation. The heartening thing for Jose Mourinho and for United supporters is how quickly Lukaku is learning from them.
More than anything, Lukaku is a student of the game, something which marks him out for continued success with both club and country. For a player of his size, he is surprisingly elusive when the penalty area is at its most congested. He also shows confidence when taking on multiple defenders, a part of his game for which he is not readily known but which -- as seen in Everton's 2-0 FA Cup victory over Chelsea last season -- he can use to devastating effect.
It must have been a welcome boost, too, for Lukaku to hear Ruud van Nistelrooy's recent praise. The Dutchman claimed 150 goals in 219 games for United, and can see Lukaku exceeding his own feats. The Belgian has got off to a fine start in that respect, with four goals in his first four appearances, but most encouraging is how Lukaku has been so focused since the moment of his arrival at United.
Preseason is not always the best indicator of how well a player's season will go -- in that respect, it is about as unreliable as major tournaments -- but, in Lukaku's case, it was wholly accurate. He finished with assurance against Real Salt Lake and Manchester City, and has taken that fine form into the league season. He has also fitted quickly into the attack, having already found an understanding with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba in particular -- in a short time, he has developed an eye for the runs these players like to make and vice versa.
Far sterner tests lie ahead. Yet it is already clear that Lukaku, in providing a highly mobile and resourceful focus for United's forward line, has made them instantly more dangerous when they are going forward. In that sense, he is to Mourinho's team what Falcao was meant to be to Louis van Gaal's United.
Falcao, like Lukaku, was a player mocked for losing the ball due to poor control, but like Lukaku he was also a player whose first touch more often than not seemed to end up, at the very least, on target.
If there is one respect in which United are not getting the best from Lukaku, then it may be in relation to their crossing. He is an excellent header of the ball, having already scored in this fashion from a Mkhitaryan free kick against West Ham. Yet United's crossing is still not of the highest level, with Antonio Valencia yet to rediscover the superb delivery that saw him lay on so many aerial opportunities for Wayne Rooney in the 2010-11 season.
Mourinho may yet rue his failure to sign Ivan Perisic from Inter Milan and may look on enviously at Chelsea's signing of Davide Zappacosta from Torino, a full-back who crosses the ball about as well as any in Europe.
For now, though, it is fair to say that Lukaku has taken to life at Old Trafford as quickly as any Mourinho signing in his first two summer transfer windows at United. And with his fellow attackers gaining in confidence -- Anthony Martial, Pogba and Rashford have all begun this season in better scoring form than the last -- there is the promise of many more goals to come.
Van Gaal said that he could see United being the top scorers in the league, a prospect which was rightly dismissed at the time. But a couple of seasons later, it is no longer so fanciful.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.