No matter what happens, no-one will look at Romelu Lukaku’s first season back at Chelsea fondly. But the Wembley winner he was cruelly denied in February could arrive in the FA Cup final on Saturday, and that could be evidence enough that this is a marriage worth fighting for.
Very few would have the gall to claim Lukaku’s return to Chelsea has been a success. Admittedly we had very – possibly unreasonably – high expectations. But Chelsea needed a striker to finish all the chances they were creating, bought one of the best around, and we all fell hook, line, and sinker for what has turned out to be an imperfect marriage.
Whether you believe it’s been his teammates, Thomas Tuchel, that interview, the system, Lukaku’s seemingly wafer-thin confidence, or – more likely – a combination of many things that have caused problems, no matter the caveats or how you dress it up, the result has been disappointing. Eight Premier League goals from 27 appearances is not good enough for a £100m striker. He was supposed to lead Chelsea to the title.
But it’s not been all bad; in a way that suggests this union isn’t an entirely lost cause.
It seems daft now to suggest Liverpool or Manchester City would ever have been concerned about Chelsea being genuine title contenders, but Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp must have watched Lukaku’s second debut against Arsenal with apprehension. The Belgian did exactly what he was bought to do that day, leaving the field with defenders battered and bruised and a goal to his name. A brace against Aston Villa followed soon after, before he opened his Champions League account for the club in their first group game against Zenit St Petersburg. It was all going swimmingly.
And in the last week, we’ve again seen something resembling the Inter Milan iteration of Lukaku. He’s scored three in two but his influence has been greater than that. His display against an admittedly very poor Leeds side was a far cry from his seven-touch nadir against Crystal Palace in February. His teammates, for the first time in months, look as though they are enjoying playing alongside him.
While the second act was both far too long and incredibly frustrating, the first was promising and the third could yet save Lukaku from complete condemnation come season’s end.
Lukaku may not start the FA Cup final. Kai Havertz has proven himself to be a big-game player and has already scored against Liverpool this season. But Lukaku will be called upon at some point, just as he was in the Carabao Cup final.
The bulk of his shoulder was the difference between Chelsea winning and losing. A protein shake’s difference between hero and zero as his goal was ruled out for offside in extra time. The last three months could have been so different. And given Lukaku’s sensibilities, with his mentality and physicality so clearly intertwined and goalscoring a habit, we may well currently be talking about a guy well and truly in his Chelsea groove had his celebrations not been cut short at Wembley. Instead, it’s someone still fighting for a place in the team.
This lukaku goal didn't count in the carabao cup final… But this mane goal counts…. The streets won't forget pic.twitter.com/6W41G7lcP5
— happyy_godd ⚪ (@Chukwum37958037) March 5, 2022
Moments like that can be the making of a player: a breakthrough in counselling to aid a marriage hurtling towards divorce; a moment to stop, take stock and think ‘actually, this might work out’.
There’s no magic wand. A winner on Saturday isn’t suddenly going to force Lukaku’s teammates to play to his strengths or vice versa. A huge amount of time in the off-season needs to be spent on getting them to work as one. But with the fear right now being that divorce is inevitable – whether he actually leaves or sleeps on the sofa with nowhere else to go – Lukaku and Chelsea need the shot in the arm a decent FA Cup display would provide, simply to prove to themselves that the juice is worth the squeeze.
This is not a relationship beyond repair, but one in need of hard evidence that it’s worth pursuing. A moment captivating enough to wipe the slate clean and make this first season a potential blot on an otherwise prosperous, goal-filled Chelsea career would do. 1-0 to Chelsea, Lukaku 90+3.