It has been a tough week for some distinguished spectators in the Champions League. Luis Suarez, leading man in Atletico Madrid’s Liga-winning season in 2021, sat on the bench throughout the 1-1 draw with Manchester United that his team dominated. He watched an inspired Joao Felix, 13 years his junior, spearhead Atletico in his place.
A night earlier, Paulo Dybala sat out Juventus’s trip to Villarreal with injury. The game had barely started when Dusan Vlahovic, the 22-year-old new Juve recruit, marked his Champions League debut with a goal after less than 40 seconds.
The same night, there was no action at all at Stamford Bridge for 28-year-old Romelu Lukaku, an unused substitute during a 2-0 Chelsea win over Lille in which Kai Havertz, 22, scored a target-man’s goal and might have added two more.
If the feeling, as the first legs of the knockout stage concluded with teenager Anthony Elanga equalising Joao Felix’s excellent strike in Madrid, was of a subtle generational shift, the most compromised figure was not Suarez, or Dybala, or even an upstaged Cristiano Ronaldo, but Lukaku.
He is Chelsea’s most expensive signing, and returned only last summer to the club where, in his teens, he spent more time than he appreciated being marginalised.
The price of the ‘homecoming’, at supposedly his peak age, was more than €100m, to Inter Milan, but he has reason to doubt how full a role he might have in the season’s first domestic final, Sunday’s League Cup showdown against Liverpool.
Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea manager, described Lukaku as “not only physically but mentally tired” when reviewing his decision to line up Havertz, Christian Pulisic - who scored the second Chelsea goal - and Hakim Ziyech as his front three against Lille.
Three days earlier, Ziyech had earned all three points against Crystal Palace on an afternoon when Lukaku’s contribution made headlines for entirely the wrong reasons: in 90 minutes he touched the ball a mere seven times.
Chelsea vs Lille player ratings
In his last eight Chelsea games in England, Lukaku has scored once, against lower-division Chesterfield in a 5-1 FA Cup victory. The break in that sequence was in Abu Dhabi, where Lukaku goals swung the semi-final and the final of the Club World Cup Chelsea’s way.
But even there, he would be upstaged by Havertz, who is burnishing his reputation as the key man to deliver knockout blows for Tuchel’s Chelsea. Havertz etched his name into the club’s Hall of Fame with the winning goal in last May’s Champions League final against Manchester City; Havertz struck the extra-time penalty against Palmeiras in the Club World Cup final.
No manager of Chelsea omits the most expensive signing in the club’s history easily, but, right now, Tuchel need not feel pressure from his bosses to include the Belgian.
Certainly, Chelsea invested heavily to bring back Lukaku because it was believed his qualities would complete the jigsaw Tuchel had assembled impressively since replacing Frank Lampard in January last year.
Yet in the overall assessment of how skilfully the German maximises Chelsea’s other assets, the inconsistent impact of one €100 million central striker is balanced against the improvement in form of Havertz, who cost over €80m in 2020, and any coaxing of the best from the likes of €60m-plus Pulisic.
Tuchel, besides having delivered a European Cup within barely five months of taking over, has even rebuilt the reputation of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who remains second choice for his position behind Edu Mendy, but who looks closer to the €80m goalkeeper Chelsea signed in 2018 than he did 12 months ago.
Lukaku has openly said that at times he misses Inter, where he was the leading goalscorer and the apex of the tactical plan during last season’s annexing of the Serie A title. He can hardly have heard happily Tuchel’s explanation of his omission from the line-up last Tuesday as a choice in favour of the mobility of Havertz and pace of Pulisic: “The focus was on intensity, a high-speed game and also hard work on the ball and off the ball,” said Tuchel.
That did not mean, Tuchel made clear, that Lukaku would be kept in reserve, strictly as a Plan B. Chelsea have been careless with too many talents in the recent past to let that happen. They allowed Lukaku to leave, having scouted him as a teenager, once before and regretted it.
And they need only look the opposition line-up on Sunday to be reminded yet again, that back in 2014 - the year Lukaku was sold to Everton - they signed a very promising winger and let him go after a year spent watching far more often from the sidelines than playing. That player’s name was Mohamed Salah.