Are you watching, Mauricio Pochettino? Chelsea flop Romelu Lukaku showing signs of life at Inter ahead of Milan derby
Stanley Matthews once said that "confidence is fitness" - and Romelu Lukaku feels like an excellent case in point. Just four months ago, Beppe Bergomi was among those Inter fans that feared the striker was physically and mentally shot, the legendary defender describing Lukaku's performance in a 2-2 draw at Monza as "embarrassing".
At the time, Lukaku was struggling to control the ball, let alone put it in the back of the net, with the devastating dual effect of a four-month lay-off and a humiliating World Cup cameo in Qatar reducing 'Big Rom' to a shadow of his former self.
As Inter CEO Beppe Marotta admitted, "He is not the Lukaku seen in previous years." However, a career that appeared to be flatlining is now showing signs of life.
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'The stirring of a sleeping a giant'
No player has been involved in more Serie A goals (seven) since the start of April, while the past few months have also seen Lukaku make crucial contributions to wins in Europe and the Coppa Italia.
Empoli away on April 23 felt like a turning point, for both Lukaku and Inter. Simone Inzaghi's side arrived at the Stadio Carlo Castellani without a win in their previous five league games. Lukaku, meanwhile, had managed just three goals all season long.
But the Belgian bagged a brace before then setting up Lautaro Martinez to put the seal on a morale-boosting 3-0 win. As the Gazzetta dello Sport put it, Lukaku's all-action display felt like "the stirring of a sleeping giant".
"If Lukaku returns to being Lukaku," Sebastiano Vernazza wrote, "then everything is possible."
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Thinking clearly and quickly
It certainly feels that way on the eve of Inter's Champions League semi-final first leg showdown with AC Milan. Lukaku is by no means certain to start at San Siro, with fellow forwards Lautaro and Edin Dzeko also rediscovering their shooting boots in recent weeks. But his prospects improved after another impressive showing at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, with Lukaku netting the killer second goal in a 2-0 win over top-four rivals Roma.
It wasn't the most stunning strike of Lukaku's career but the confidence with which he swept the ball home first-time from outside the area was hugely significant. The contrast with the Lukaku of four months ago was stark. This was not the finish of a striker struggling with a lack of self-belief.
Lukaku had the look of man thinking clearly and quickly again and, as far as Inter are concerned, his return to form is purely down to his return to full fitness.
'He seems fitter, he seems slimmer'
During his post-World Cup woe, Marotta, Inzaghi and even vice-president Javier Zanetti all kept saying the same thing: Lukaku was coming off the worst injury of his career and, because of his size, he would need a lot of time to get back to his best.
For a long time, it felt like they were simply making excuses for a high-profile player they had brought back to the club on an expensive loan deal. But as the season progressed, it was clear that Lukaku was slowly but surely starting to play like his old self because he was starting to look like his old self.
It's not just that he's scoring and creating again - he has three goals and three assists in his last three Serie A games. His blistering turn of pace has also returned, which he has attributed to the "great work" he is going with Inter's fitness staff.
As former Belgium assistant coach and Lukaku mentor Thierry Henry noted after the attacker scored the only goal in Inter's Champions League last-16 tie against Porto, "He seems fitter, he seems slimmer, he wants it."
'In love with Inter and the city'
There is certainly an obvious determination on Lukaku's part to finish the season as strongly as possible. His prospects of playing for a top club next season depend upon it.
We know that Lukaku wants to stay at Inter; he's made that abundantly clear. Several times. He adores Milan and is settled in the city. His son even plays in the Inter academy. His obvious goal, then, is to make himself appear indispensable to Inter between now and the end of the season, but even that might not be enough to extend his spell at San Siro.
The Nerazzurri would obviously like to keep Lukaku, particularly if his injury issues are finally behind them. He is an immensely popular player at the club, and not just because of his previous contribution to the club's resurgence and success under former coach Antonio Conte. His genuine affection for Inter is greatly appreciated.
As Marotta told Sky Sport Italia last month, "Romelu is in love with Inter and the city... It is also important to note that he is a great professional, he has a great sense of belonging, and these are key elements that go alongside the technical and sporting considerations [of a potential transfer]."
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Inter's financial issues
The precious nature of the Nerazzurri's financial situation is well-known, and a top-four finish is absolutely essential to their hopes of having money to invest in the transfer market this summer.
“The economic planning, based on sustainability, is not just about increasing revenue by progressing in the Champions League and Coppa Italia," Marotta explained. "Italian football in general is struggling financially, so [the money made from Inter's Champions League run] will at best cut down the losses we will suffer by the end of the season.”
However, even if Inter do secure Champions League football for next season - they're currently fourth in Serie A, two points ahead of fifth-placed Milan - it still seems highly unlikely that they would agree to pay another €20 million (£18m/$22m) to take Lukaku on loan for another season.
Cheaper and younger alternatives are already being explored, meaning the only way Lukaku will return to Milan is if Chelsea agree to lower the terms of the current agreement, especially with a permanent transfer completely out of the question right now.
A chance to impress Pochettino
Intriguingly, the Gazzetta has claimed that incoming Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino is open to the idea of giving Lukaku another chance to prove himself at Stamford Bridge.
It still feels unlikely that Lukaku will return to west London, particularly given the way in which he upset Blues fans during his disastrous 2021-22 campaign. But Pochettino has expressed his admiration for the player in the past, most notably during his time at Tottenham, when he called Lukaku one of the top 10 forwards in Europe ahead of a game against Everton.
It's also clear that Chelsea need an orthodox No.9, and given the colossal amount of money they've already invested, in both Lukaku and several other underwhelming acquisitions, it would be in the club's interest to give their club-record signing another shot at salvation.
One can be sure, then, that Pochettino will be a particularly interested observer when Inter take on Milan on Wednesday night. The signs are that the sleeping giant has indeed awakened, and not just at the right time for Inter - but maybe Chelsea too...