Lukaku justifies Clarke’s brave decision to start him ahead of Long

West Bromich Albion 1 Reading 0

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The Independent Football

Largely overlooked by Andre Villas-Boas after Chelsea paid £18 million to bring him to England in August last year, Romelu Lukaku is beginning to make up for lost time after joining West Bromwich Albion on a season-long loan.

The 19-year-old Belgian striker’s second goal for Steve Clarke’s side settled a contest that should have been won more comfortably against a Reading side who were reminded again how difficult it is to win Premier League points.

Brian McDermott’s promoted side could not have been faulted for their industry but had barely created a chance until substitute Hal Robson-Kanu’s header beat Ben Foster only to land on the roof of the net in the last 10 minutes.

By then Albion had confirmed their superiority with a goal in the 71st minute, one that justified one of Clarke’s first tough decisions since leaving the relative comfort of coaching to be a number one. So far it could hardly be going better, with his side third in the table.

Clarke left out top scorer Shane Long to accommodate Lukaku from the start for the first time. As it happened, Long played a key role, meeting fellow substitute Graham Dorrans’s crossfield pass with a header at the far post to set up the chance for his teammate, who steadied himself before driving the ball past an unsighted Alex McCarthy, whose performance otherwise fully justified his selection ahead of Adam Federici.

“I said when I took the job that I would not be afraid to take tough decisions and it was difficult to leave out Shane because he has been terrific for me,” Clarke said. “But Romelu had been patient, waiting on the bench. I also felt I was I was always asking Shane to do the horrible shift, being on for the first hour when the defenders were still fresh and that it might benefit him to come on as the fresh player for a change. It worked out well for the team.”

Clarke, who was eight years on the coaching staff at Stamford Bridge, may have made one of the deals of the season in taking Lukaku on loan. Villas-Boas, who was sacked by Chelsea before the youngster started a Premier League match, found it difficult to find room for him while Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba were at his disposal, using him from the start only in Carling Cup games. “Had he been able to overtake those two it would have been a tremendous achievement for a 19-year-old,” he said recently.

With Drogba gone and Torres continuing to find his old Liverpool form elusive even under Roberto di Matteo, Chelsea might realise what they are missing, although Clarke said the possibility of recalling the striker did not concern him.

“I’m looking for Romelu to continue the fine form he has shown for us so far and score a few more goals. I would imagine there is a recall clause in his contract but if they do come back for him I can’t affect that.”

Clarke must work out how to include Long and Lukaku in a system based on one striker. It was working yesterday until James Morrison, outstanding as one of a trio behind Lukaku, went off injured. Only Claudio Yacob, exemplary in a holding midfield role, rivalled Morrison as man of the match. Those chances would have given Albion a cushion had McCarthy not been excellent in the Reading goal. He was beaten by a Jonas Olsson header that hit the bar but twice, at the start of each half, the 22-year-old denied Morrison, diving to push a shot around, then reacting to keep out a volley from the same player. It was a surprise that he was beaten by a shot fired straight at him, although he had two defenders between him and Lukaku and McDermott blamed them. “We should have got a block in regardless of what the keeper did,” he said.

West Bromwich (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Yacob, Mulumbu; Gera (Dorrans 70), Morrison (Long 66), Brunt; Lukaku (Rosenberg 76).

Reading (4-4-2): McCarthy; Gunter (Robson-Kanu 80), Pearce, Gorkss, Shorey; McCleary, Leigertwood, Guthrie, McAnuff; Pogrebnyak (Hunt 69), Le Fondre.

Referee: Chris Foy

Man of the match: Yacob (West Brom)

Match rating: 6/10