The return of the real Romelu Lukaku? Inter striker targets Serie A title after World Cup horror show
While a frustrated Romelu Lukaku was punching a dugout in Qatar after Belgium's World Cup elimination, a delighted Ivan Rakitic was in Croatia calling on his compatriots to pay for a vacation in Split for the misfiring, half-fit forward.
It summed up Lukaku's 2022, a sorry tale of insults added to injuries.
He had, of course, begun the year at Chelsea, having re-joined the Blues from Inter in the summer of 2021 for £97.5 million ($117m), but was sent back to San Siro after a horrific season at Stamford Bridge that yielded just eight Premier League goals.
Thomas Tuchel was certainly glad to see the back of the big Belgian, but so too were the fans. Just like the German manager, they had been left enraged by an unsanctioned interview with Sky Sport Italia halfway through the season that made clear Lukaku's dissatisfaction with Tuchel's tactics, as well as his enduring love for Inter.
But the Nerazzurri's ultras were hardly happy to see him return. Lukaku may have fired Inter to the Scudetto in 2020-21, but the fans had neither forgotten nor forgiven the way in which he left without even saying goodbye, let alone explaining why.
"He was supported and treated like a king, now he is one like many," read a statement from the Curva Nord. "We will never cheer against Lukaku if he wears the Inter shirt again, but we took note of his betrayal and we were very upset."
Hardly surprising, then, that Lukaku labelled the 2022-23 season "the biggest challenge" of his career.
He was happy to be back in Milan, of course. His mentor, Antonio Conte, may have long since departed, but several of his fellow Scudetto winners were still there, including Lautaro Martinez, with whom he had formed such a strong bond, on and off the field. Indeed, Lukaku was among the first to text this strike partner after Argentina's World Cup win.
Some of the supporters may have still been upset, but the prodigal son felt right at home, and he was determined to make up for lost time. It was, after all, Inter who "had allowed me to be Romelu Lukaku". The Romelu Lukaku who terrorised Serie A defences for two seasons, scoring 64 goals in 95 appearances in all competitions.
However, after his struggles at Stamford Bridge, many pundits felt he once again had a point to prove, which annoyed him.
Even though so much of the damage done during the preceding 12 months had been self-inflicted, he felt slighted, disrespected by those that dismissed him as a second-rate striker because he had once again flopped at a top English club.
"I think in a year people have forgotten what I can do on the pitch," the former Manchester United attacker told DAZN. "There is a kind of anger that I have inside of me." A burning desire to once again make the critics eat their words, as he had done during his first stint at San Siro.
Unfortunately, the intervening six months have done nothing to alter the perception that Lukaku misses too many chances at the very highest level to be considered one of the game's elite No.9s.
On the contrary, that view was only reinforced by his horror show in Belgium's must-win meeting with Croatia at Qatar 2022. Just like the side of the Belgium dugout at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Lukaku's reputation took a battering that night.
There were mitigating circumstances, though. Were Lukaku not Belgium's all-time leading goalscorer (68), there's no way he would have even travelled to Qatar. He hadn't started a competitive game for Inter since August. He was severely handicapped by a niggling muscular injury that he described as the worst of his career. Never before had he been forced to sit out so many matches.
Roberto Martinez, however, decided that if Lukaku would be fit to feature in Belgium's final group game in Qatar, he would be included in his World Cup squad. It was, in the Spaniard's opinion, a risk worth taking.
Yet even the Belgium team doctor Kristof Sas had admitted at the tail end of October that getting Lukaku "medically fit" was one thing, having him "at a high level" would be quite another.
And Lukaku was nowhere near his usual level against Croatia. He squandered one sitter after another, making the tantrum and tears that followed at full-time utterly unsurprising.
Still, while former Croatia international Rakitic was mocking Lukaku, Ivan Perisic was doing his best to console him. "I was with him for two or three minutes after the game," the ex-Inter winger told FIFA+. "This is football, sometimes you score, another time you miss. But he's a really strong player, so now I hope that he can win as many trophies as possible with the Inter shirt."
Beppe Marotta is hoping likewise. The Inter CEO was rightly lauded for brokering an €8m loan deal to bring Lukaku back to San Siro a year after selling him to Chelsea for €115m.
But while it may not have been a massive investment on Marotta's part, it was a significant show of faith, and he now needs Lukaku to repay him in goals if this loan deal is to be made permanent.
Indeed, it is telling that while speaking about the return of the former 'King of Milan' just before Christmas, Marotta said he didn't want to put any "pressure" on Lukaku and yet, in the very next breath, admitted that "we are sure he will give an amazing performance in the second half of the season".
"We expect something great," Marotta added. "He was dealing with a muscle issue, but now he has fully recovered and needs to get back in shape. He must find the right condition."
The early signs are encouraging, at least. Lukaku took five days off after what he called his "Croatia disappointment" before heading to Dubai to "restart from zero and arrive ready" to return to training with Inter.
The club also immediately put him on an intensive, personalised programme. "They massacred me for 10 days," as Lukaku put it. But the hard work appears to have paid off.
At the time of writing, Lukaku is down to 101 kilograms (just under 16 stone) and managed to play all but eight minutes of Inter's friendlies against Reggina and Sassuolo just before the turn of the year, even scoring against the latter.
There is, then, every chance that he will start for the first time since matchday three when Inter host Napoli at the Giuseppe Meazza on Wednesday. It's a game that the Nerazzurri simply have to win, given they're already 11 points behind the league leaders.
Lukaku is acutely aware of the scale of the task. He watched an awful lot of Napoli during his spell on the sidelines. Just like everyone else, he was blown away by their brilliance.
But while he says he respects Luciano Spalletti's scintillating side, he does not fear them. What's more, he is adamant they can be caught, and by Inter too.
"I still believe," Lukaku told Sky Sport Italia. "This is why we play football, you have to believe in the impossible. We'll see at the end of the season which team will be champions. But for now, nobody's lifted anything. We're still there. There are still six months to go."
Six months to turn the season around. Six months to earn an extension to his San Siro stay. Six months to put the insults and injuries well and truly behind him.
Six months to show that he can be Romelu Lukaku again.