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No league start for two months: Can unloved Lukaku save his Chelsea career?

10:00 EAT 20/04/2022
Romelu Lukaku Chelsea 2021-22
When the Belgian made his debut against Arsenal last August, he looked a perfect fit for Thomas Tuchel's team, but he has since fallen out of favour

"I certainly don't think anybody wants to play against him. With his physicality, strength, link play and ability to attack the space, he gives us another dimension," Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said after Romelu Lukaku's impressive debut at Arsenal in August.

Back then, despite the Blues being the reigning European champions, their new No.9 looked like the kind of dominant and prolific centre-forward they had been missing.

He needed just 15 minutes to open his account and went on to score four goals in his first four appearances upon his return to Stamford Bridge.

However, even then, there were ominous signs that Lukaku was not quite the perfect fit he seemed to be.

Indeed, it is worth noting that those first four goals came from just eight shots on target.

And now, as Chelsea prepare to face Arsenal again in the Premier League, this time at home on Wednesday, Lukaku looks like the odd man out among Tuchel's forwards.

Indeed, the £100 million ($136m) summer signing from Inter has not started a Premier League or Champions League game for two months.

Tuchel has gone from showering the striker in praise in post-match interviews to having to explain to the press why Lukaku is primarily warming the bench these days.

"After a period of injury, he lacks fitness for matches," Tuchel explained after last weekend's FA Cup semi-final win over Crystal Palace. "But I don’t point the finger at him. It’s just a fact; it’s not even his fault.

"It is just like this in the crucial time of the season where you need a certain rhythm."

With Kai Havertz having seemingly moved ahead of Lukaku in the pecking order, there has been mounting speculation that the 28-year-old might be allowed to leave at the end of the season.

However, Tuchel insists that Chelsea can still enjoy success with Lukaku up front.

"For us it is clear, we can play with Romelu and we can be very strong with Romelu and we proved it," the German stated.

"And we will prove it again if he stays involved mentally. He can grow in this situation and come back stronger.

"For sure, it is a disappointing situation for him and not what we expected, but it is not finished and we will not give in.

"We never give in with any players and we never give up. We will push him, we will push as far as we can and as long as the player continues with the mentality that is needed to bring a team forward, he can still be a crucial player.

"He has support to try to reach this kind of level again. It is in him and it is in us. He is in the right place still and there’s things for all of us to improve. We won’t give up."

These are undeniably difficult times for Lukaku, though, and his confidence appears to have been affected, with the attacker having missed two sitters in his last two outings, against Real Madrid and Palace.

After the latter match at Wembley Stadium, Lukaku was asked to give interviews by some journalists in attendance but said that he is "not allowed", pointing to his mouth as he got on the team's bus.

That is because his unsanctioned interview with Sky Sport Italia in December is where all his troubles began.

After returning from a spell on the sidelines, Lukaku was looking like his old self again after two league goals in two games.

However, then the interview was broadcast, and Lukaku has not scored in the league since.

Sources close to the club believe that the striker put pressure on himself by appearing to criticise Tuchel's tactics, as well as declaring his undying love for Inter, which did not go over well with Chelsea fans.

The Blues hierarchy felt they had no option but to drop Lukaku for a subsequent league game against Liverpool.

After that very public dressing-down, Lukaku – who has struggled in the past in teams where he does not feel loved – found it extremely difficult to reproduce anything like his best form.

He continues to be linked with a return to Inter by the Italian press, but a transfer looks impossible from a financial perspective and has been repeatedly been rubbished by GOAL's sources.

Inter are instead looking at signing Sassuolo striker Gianluca Scamacca, while Lukaku's £325,000-a-week wages will dissuade most other elite sides from making a move.

However, Joe Cole declared on ITV's coverage of the FA Cup semi-final, "Lukaku has six weeks to save his Chelsea career" and he is probably right.

Lukaku was signed to score goals and that is exactly what he needs to do between now and the end of the season if he is to win over Tuchel and the club's supporters.

Lukaku's campaign could not have started any better, but has now become a battle for the hearts and minds of all involved.