Lukaku offers promising glimpse of real Chelsea after Blues threaten to miss
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Chelsea are expected to be much better for Romelu Lukaku’s return – and the £ 97.5million forward is set to benefit endlessly from his decisive contribution from the Aston Villa bench on Boxing Day.
It was a game that risked turning into another bad day for Chelsea, who entered the pitch knowing Manchester City had opened up a nine-point lead over them at the top of the table. Even if it wasn’t a must win yet, more points lost would have cast serious doubt on their ability to mount a serious title challenge in the New Year.
Taking advantage of an own goal from Reece James in the first half, they needed another penalty from Jorginho to even the score before the break. But they looked far from convincing at Villa Park, with the home side repeatedly stretching them from the back and reducing them to that one free kick with a shot on target.
With Christian Pulisic running like a fake No9 and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount struggling to provide meaningful serve, Chelsea were literally useless up front.
Tuchel sent for Lukaku and he showed precisely what they have been missing since his ankle injury in October. He may have been available last month – but he was far from being in peak physical shape, while a bout of Covid also delayed his progress.
The Belgian was signed as the missing piece of Chelsea’s puzzle – and he watched it from the moment he stepped onto the pitch, replacing Trevoh Chalobah, who had been repeatedly exposed in the first 45 minutes.
Suddenly Chelsea had something to aim for and suddenly the quality of their ball improved as a result.
Moments after the rebound he had collided with Emi Martinez and Tyrone Mings as he stood up to meet a cross.
If this was an example of the physical threat Villa suddenly faced, his goal demonstrated his prowess in the box, both in terms of movement and finishing.
Anticipating Callum Hudson-Odoi’s cross from the left, he dropped Mings six yards, before a sudden acceleration saw him rush past the England defender and aim his header into the far corner.
This brought Chelsea in control for the first time in a game that so easily could have cost them more points in the title race had it not been for their record signing.
With Villa chasing late for an equalizer, then it was Lukaku’s speed across the floor as he chased another ball from the impressive Hudson-Odoi that saw him enter the box with only Martinez to beat.
Ezri Konsa gave the chase and the man of Villa’s only option was to rush in, sending Lukaku tumbling down and prompting Martin Atkinson to point out where Jorginho needed to end.
Time will tell how important that victory was – but a loss or even a draw would have placed scrutiny on Tuchel’s ability to keep pace with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in a three-horse title race.
Pulisic didn’t convince as a false nine – but, in his defense, the service rarely provided clear openings.
Chelsea’s fall over the past month has been alarming, but it was a reminder of what they had to work through without their best players.
At his best, Lukaku is a supreme match winner – especially against opposition like Villa.
It may lack against the best, but it was bought to ride most of the field.
Teams like Burnley, West Ham, Everton and Wolves, which have cost Chelsea nine points in recent weeks as their title challenge stalled.
Pulisic didn’t convince as a false nine – but, in his defense, the serve provided by James, Mount and Hudson-Odoi rarely produced clear openings for the American.
While a lack of cohesion up front could be mitigated by the improvised nature of Tuchel’s attack, the ease with which Villa moved through a full-strength midfielder to expose Chelsea’s defense was of more concern.
On several occasions, the home side managed to overtake the last defender – especially struggling Chalobah. It was only bad decision-making that prevented them from working fairly regularly with Edouard Mendy.
They didn’t even need a shot to take the lead after 28 minutes when another break stretched Chelsea and Targett’s cross was deflected past Mendy by James’ header.
If it was a giveaway, Villa felt good about his lead – and if they had managed to stay ahead longer, it would have been a tougher test on their opponents’ confidence. Instead, they gave Chelsea the chance to come straight back into the game when Matthew Cash unnecessarily rushed to Hudson-Odoi in the box to concede a penalty.
Jorginho stepped in and swept his penalty in front of Martinez to tie the score after 34 minutes. It gave Chelsea something to lean on – and Lukaku did the rest.
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