Among the many Manchester United players to have enjoyed a fine World Cup, happiest must be Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, who will be in opposition Tuesday when Belgium and France meet in St. Petersburg in the first semifinal.
For England, Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford have all starred. Among the others, while we should pass on David De Gea’s displays for Spain, Victor Lindelof was exceptional for Sweden, Marcos Rojo’s round-of-16-place clinching winner vs. Nigeria was the high point of Argentina’s troubled tournament and Belgium’s Marouane Fellaini has showed why managers like him, even if so many United fans do not.
But Lukaku is close to superstar territory, so impressive has been his running, vision, teamwork and ability to preoccupy an entire opposing defence, including one as good as that of Brazil’s, the pre-tournament favourites.
His individual highlight in that quarterfinal came in a move that began with Belgium defending a corner. Lukaku controlled a clearance and launched a counter that saw him pass Fernandinho with ease before laying the ball off for Kevin De Bruyne, who scored Belgium’s second.
Pogba, meanwhile, also impressed in the quarterfinals with a disciplined performance against Uruguay, though few United fans would have been disappointed to see him take issue with ex-Liverpool striker Luis Suarez in a row after Kylian Mbappe was accused of feigning injury.
As well as that appointment in St. Petersburg, Tuesday also marks the first anniversary of Lukaku signing for United from Everton. The transfer was completed when he and Pogba were on holiday together in Los Angeles, and there were high hopes for both as part of United’s future.
Here were two emerging talents of world football with high price tags to match. Born two months apart in 1993 — Pogba is the older of the two — they had gone on to share the same agent (Lukaku recently moved from Mino Raiola to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation) and the same postcode.
The pair have been neighbours since 2016, when Pogba moved to England’s northwest, having rejoined United. Even before becoming teammates, they were spotted socialising around the cafes of Cheshire, although while Pogba is friends with footballers including Lukaku, Patrice Evra and Antoine Griezmann, he is closest of all to his family.
“Of course he is one of my mates and my neighbour as well,” Lukaku told MUTV last July. “We are always together on a daily basis so he would explain to me how things were going. Last season when he signed for United, to have witnessed that, it really triggered something in my brain and I knew that if one day I had a chance to sign then I would not say no.”
Lukaku pointed out Pogba’s skill, vision and the way he commands the game — “I’m skilful, but with his skill he can get out of tight spaces and if I could have that then I could score 10 to 15 goals more” — and fans hoped the duo would combine frequently under Jose Mourinho.
However, while both enjoyed fine moments as United finished second in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final, 2017-18 was not without its issues for Lukaku, Pogba and the club as a whole. After an exceptional start during which both impressed, Pogba suffered a muscle injury against Basel in September and was out for two months, during which United lost at Huddersfield and Chelsea.
By the time he returned in November, the league title all but belonged to Manchester City, a fate that moved closer in early December, with Pogba suspended after being sent off in an otherwise fine display at Arsenal, as United fell to a 2-1 defeat on derby day.
Between those two giant league matches was a Champions League group game at home to CSKA Moscow. In it, Pogba made his sixth assist of the season to Lukaku alone, having taken 51 games to reach the same number total in the previous campaign.
World Cup 2018 must-reads
– Make your daily ESPN FC Match Predictor picks!
– World Cup fixtures, results and coverage
– Belgium boss Roberto Martinez exclusive interview
– Semifinal questions for Belgium, France, England, Croatia
– How Fortnite, bowling and darts have helped England
– World Cups are the worst time to sign a player
Neither player was as productive in the second half of the season. Pogba, who has become the main man in the dressing room since the departures of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, had frustrations in his relationship with Mourinho, while Lukaku suffered an injury in late April that meant he was only fit enough for a substitute’s role in the FA Cup final against his former club Chelsea.
Defeat at Wembley was a major disappointment, though it paled in comparison with a shock Champions League exit at the hands of Sevilla. Lukaku scored United’s only goal of the tie, but was often isolated from his teammates, while Pogba was not in the starting lineup for either game.
There was some talk of Pogba leaving, but the club had no intention of selling, especially for less than the £89 million they paid Juventus. Lukaku, meanwhile, had to be content with a debut season at Old Trafford that yielded 27 goals in all competitions.
Despite setbacks, United fans can still look to this key pair with hope and a goal at Bournemouth in April, which saw Lukaku finish after racing on to a fine Pogba pass, served further notice of what they are capable. After the World Cup ends, the two 25-year-olds will run their attention back to club football and a new season in red.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.