Chelsea close in on Wembley as Romelu Lukaku begins comeback in understated fashion

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 (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
(Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

“It is not a small thing, it’s not the biggest thing.”

That was how Thomas Tuchel summed up the Romelu Lukaku saga and so it proved, as the Belgian striker’s return to the starting XI provided only a footnote, albeit a significant one, on an excellent night’s work for what - as has been made clear again this week - is emphatically the German’s Chelsea team.

A Kai Havertz strike booted into the roof of his own net by Davinson Sanchez and a Japhet Tanganga header, ricocheted past Hugo Lloris off Ben Davies, gave the Blues a 2-0 lead to take into the second leg of this Carabao Cup semi-final and for all the pre-match hype over Lukaku’s comeback, it will be Spurs desperately needing to find one when the two sides meet again on their patch in a week’s time.

On the Lukaku front, the timing of this fixture might’ve been rather awkward for Tuchel, given Antonio Conte’s presence in the opposing dugout, like going for a walk with your new girlfriend the morning after your first row and bumping into her Italian ex-boyfriend in the park. In reality, it was all rather uncomplicated.

Conte, too, was supposed to be facing his own reckoning with an old fame after a sour divorce, but the Lukaku furore offered decent cover ahead of his first return to Stamford Bridge and the flat performance of his team on the night turned it into something of a non-event, doing little to inspire much jealousy-fuelled ire among the home support.

Lukaku himself began the evening tucked away under a wooly hat during the warm-up, looking a little sheepish, unsure of his post-apology standing, and the muted reception that greeted his name over the PA ahead of kick-off suggested the supposedly damned party in all of this weren’t quite sure how they were supposed to react either. Wisely, taking the lead of their diplomatic manager, they decided there was little point in fanning the flames.

In the game itself, there were moments where the club’s record signing threatened to make his mark, glancing just wide from Hakim Ziyech’s cross, an effort which, six inches the other side of post, would have made it 3-0 before half-time and perhaps ended the tie, and then teeing up the Moroccan for a similarly wasted opportunity the other side of the restart, before steering substitute Timo Werner’s cross straight at Lloris late on.

There were others that told of the frustrations on both sides of the affair. On Lukaku’s part, there were arms thrown to the sky at crosses not delivered and peripheral periods where his fair, if ill-placed, remarks about the way in which Tuchel’s system has so far failed to play to his strengths were in evidence.

 (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
(Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

But his lack of sharpness, supposedly responsible for the delay to his return from injury that brought about much of the annoyance voiced in that interview in the first place, was also clear to see in the kind of leaden-footed touches that often creep into his game when it is anything short of at its best. “He wears his heart on his tongue,” Tuchel said this week. Yes, and, at times, steel-toe-caps on his feet.

In the main though, this was an adequate, unremarkable display, middling enough to be in keeping with Tuchel’s admirable refusal to neither understate nor overplay the magnitude of the affair, encouraging enough to represent a satisfactory first step on what should not be a long road to redemption.

As for Chelsea’s route to Wembley - they are almost there.

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