Sunday, February 25

Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku an unused substitute for Champions League win over Lille

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel made the bold choice of keeping the club’s record transfer Romelu Lukaku on the bench for their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg 2-0 win at home to Lille.

The German coach defended the former Inter Milan striker ahead of the game, after another limp performance in their 1-0 Premier League win at Crystal Palace on Feb. 19, but chose to remove him from the starting XI.

Lukaku made headlines at Selhurst Park, after managing just seven touches across 90 minutes, as the lowest recorded involvement in a Premier League game since 2003.

The Belgian star has divided opinion on his return to the Blues this summer, with just five Premier League goals in 17 games this season, and his omission from such a big game raises further questions about Tuchel’s faith in him at Stamford Bridge.

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Why was Lukaku kept on the bench vs. Lille?

Following Tuchel’s defense of Lukaku, Blues fans were expectant of their No. 9 leading the line against the Ligue 1 side on Feb. 22.

Despite nagging speculation over Tuchel being unconvinced by Lukaku’s ability to produce on the big stage back in English football, the former PSG coach claimed the 28-year-old is struggling with fatigue before the game.

“Lukaku was a bit tired, maybe easier for him off the bench tonight”, Tuchel stated in his pre-match interview.

Lukaku has completed 90 minutes on three occasions already this month, but claims of tiredness appear generous from Tuchel, based on Kai Havertz completing the same amount of match action, and Hakim Ziyech slightly less.

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However, despite the skewed focus on Lukaku, Tuchel again offered his support to the striker claiming there was ‘too much attention’ on his struggles against Palace during his post match comments.

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No ‘second’ honeymoon for Lukaku at Stamford Bridge

Lukaku’s return to Stamford Bridge was heralded as the prodigal son returning to West London after proving his class as the leading light in Inter’s Serie A title win in 2020-21.

Despite huge fees dominating the summer market, Lukaku’s $135-million transfer was tipped as the missing piece of Tuchel’s jigsaw with the goal of breaking the Manchester City-Liverpool Premier League hegemony.

However, put simply, it has not worked out for Lukaku back at the Bridge.

Injuries have disrupted his second coming, with 10 games missed, including two Champions League group matches, but there is a persistent sense of disillusionment between him and Tuchel.

Lukaku’s infamous Sky Italia interview caused friction between the pair with Tuchel’s acceptance of the situation hinting at a deeper frustration.

Off field controversies, when not compensated by goals, only widen these rifts, and despite Lukaku’s apology, there is the sense of a broken bond between the pair.

His overall return has fallen short of expectation, with an opening day goal against Arsenal going down as the highest-ranked side he has netted against this season.

Lukaku’s comeback was expected to put Chelsea’s output on par with Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Liverpool’s Mo Salah in the 20+ goals department, and his deeper metrics show a clear picture of his below-par return.

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Based on Premier League action, his expected goals per 90 minutes (xG/p90) is a lowly 0.34, compared to Salah on 0.65, and league leader Diogo Jota on 0.71.

Another statistic that magnifies his finishing struggles: His average shots on target per 90 minutes clock in at 2.1, with Salah on 1.67 and Kane on 1.53. He’s getting the shots on goal, but he struggling to get them past the goalkeeper on a regular basis at a point in the season when Chelsea need a consistent goal scorer, as the level of opposition cranks up in the stretch run.

Lukaku’s road back to Chelsea as club-record transfer

Lukaku joined Chelsea first time around in 2011, after netting 41 goals in 98 games with Anderlecht. However, successive Blues managers remained unconvinced by him.

Roberto Di Matteo loaned him to West Brom in 2012-13, where 17 Premier League kept the Baggies in the top-flight, but the following season saw another loan, as he joined Roberto Martinez’s Everton.

Lukaku gained cult status with the Toffees, as 15 league goals convinced Martinez to sign him permanently on a $46 million fee in 2014.

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Three seasons, and 87 goals later, Lukaku appeared to have outgrown Goodison Park, as Manchester United boldly shelled out $103 million to bring him to Old Trafford.

A move to a Champions League club appeared to be a message to his Chelsea doubters, but his time with United was dogged by mixed perceptions.

A total of 28 Premier League goals across two seasons was a solid return, but did not convince United of his ability to take both the club, and himself, to the next level, with his desired move to Inter Milan granted in 2020.

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A link-up with Antonio Conte at the San Siro was a match made in heaven as 47 league goals in two seasons secured Inter a first Scudetto in over a decade.

But with no Champions League to measure him against, Chelsea fans were unconvinced last summer, as his restless feet brought him back to the club in a $135 million move.

Injuries and a huge price tag have impacted Lukaku, but age old concerns about his abilities in the crunch stage of a season have not been dismissed, and Tuchel looks more skeptical than most.

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