Chelsea title hopes on as Romelu Lukaku offers Aston Villa a turn
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Chelsea signed Romelu Lukaku to make a difference in the title race – and here’s proof he can still make a revealing impact on the campaign.
Only the fullness of time will tell us how significant these three points of Villa Park were for Thomas Tuchel’s ambitions. For now, he’s kept his team in the race, with Lukaku’s introduction at half-time being the turning point.
Nine points behind Manchester City at kick-off, without the £ 97.5million striker’s headed goal followed by his run that saw Jorginho convert, it could have been another costly addition to Chelsea’s December crisis.
Defending champions Pep Guardiola are in the kind of relentless form that crushes the minds of title rivals to the point where they stop becoming worthy of the name. And dragging that nine-point City side – even at this relatively early stage in the campaign – would have left Tuchel with an unlikely, if not impossible, task for the New Year.
Given Chelsea’s form in a race that saw them go from first to third, there is no guarantee that another slip will not happen in Brighton’s hands on Wednesday, but Lukaku provided a source of hope much needed for 2022.
That’s why Chelsea made him signing their club record this summer – because he would make a difference in those close games that can go either way.
How his absence has been felt as points have been lost to Burnley, West Ham, Everton and Wolves in recent weeks. In this 3-1 against Villa, he showed them precisely what they were lacking.
Lukaku has yet to produce something like the form that pulled Inter Milan to the Italian title last season – but in that kind of mood he gave a tantalizing glimpse of what he could add to this Chelsea side. .
His goal, 11 minutes into the game, was a masterclass of movement in the box that mercilessly exposed Tyrone Mings.
Leaving the English defender, he hid in plain sight before coming back in front of him to pass Emi Martinez.
Lukaku has spent much of his career studying Edinson Cavani’s move to sharpen his game in the box and that was the result.
If that was any example of his elusive character, his run for the spot kick in added time for Chelsea was all about his speed on the pitch. Importantly, it suggested that he had full confidence in his ankle again, with Tuchel noticing that his attempts to get back into top form had been delayed by an unconscious tendency to protect the injury.
Chelsea need him to play with that kind of freedom if they are serious about getting them back into the title race.
Tuchel did not see the best of the player he wanted to transform from European champion to national title winner. A strong start quickly gave way to indifferent form and then the injury that contributed to a run that meant his last Premier League goals before Boxing Day were against the same opposition on September 11.
Just as important as this victory has been felt for Chelsea, on a personal level it could be hugely important for Lukaku.
He was bought to make a difference and that is precisely what he was doing here.
Now Chelsea need it regularly – but there is no guarantee this was the start of such a run for the striker.
Tuchel himself cast doubt on Lukaku’s ability to play against Brighton on Wednesday.
“I asked him if he could play 45 minutes,” he said. “I asked him and he said yes so we tried to play him for 45 minutes as no 9. there was no change in our tactical training.
“He doesn’t need me to play in a game like this. He doesn’t need a speech for me. He hasn’t done anything else in his whole life. He just needs to get back in shape and it’s not that easy when you have a long injury, with a body like Rom, and you catch Covid.
“He was 10 days old and was suffering from symptoms. We put him in the field for 45 minutes, which was more than what the physiotherapy department recommended.
“We thought we could take the risk and be more offensive with him. We’re glad it’s gone well for today, so let’s see how the reaction is and where we go from here.
It was a risk that paid off that day – and if Chelsea are to meet their title challenge in the second half of the season, much will depend on their ability to keep Lukaku on the pitch and at the point of his attack.
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