Chelsea’s title hopes kept alive as Romelu Lukaku offers turning point at Aston Villa

·4-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Chelsea signed Romelu Lukaku to be the difference in the title race – and here was evidence of how he may yet have a telling impact on the campaign.

Only the fulness of time will tell us how significant these three points at Villa Park were to Thomas Tuchel’s ambitions. For now, it kept his side in the race, with Lukaku’s half-time introduction the turning point.

Nine points adrift of Manchester City by kick-off, without the £97.5million striker’s headed goal, followed by his run that won a stoppage time penalty for Jorginho to convert, this could have been another costly addition to Chelsea’s December slump.

Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions are in the kind of relentless form that crushes the spirit of title rivals to the point that they cease to become worthy of that name. And trailing this City side by nine points – even at this relatively early stage of the campaign – would have left Tuchel with an improbable, if not impossible, task in the New Year.

Given Chelsea’s form during a run that has seen them drop from first to third, there are no guarantees another slip will not come at the hands of Brighton on Wednesday, but Lukaku has provided a much-needed source of hope for 2022.

This is why Chelsea made him their club record signing in the summer – because he would be the difference in those nip-and-tuck games that can go either way.

How his absence was felt as points were dropped against Burnley, West Ham, Everton and Wolves in recent weeks. In this 3-1 against Villa he showed them precisely what they have been missing.

Lukaku is still to produce anything like the form that fired Inter Milan to the Italian title last season – but in this kind of mood he provided a tantalising glimpse of what he could add to this Chelsea team.

His goal, 11 minutes after coming on, was a masterclass of movement in the box that ruthlessly exposed Tyrone Mings.

Dropping off the England defender, he hid in plain sight before darting back in front of him to head past Emi Martinez.

Lukaku has spent a lot of his career studying the movement Edinson Cavani to sharpen his play in the box and this was the result.

If that was an example of his elusiveness, his run for Chelsea’s injury time spot kick was all about his speed across the ground. Crucially it suggested he has full confidence in his ankle once again, with Tuchel noticing that his attempts to get back to full fitness have been delayed by a subconscious tendency to protect the injury.

Chelsea need him playing with this type of freedom if he is to well and truly fire them back into the title race.

Tuchel has not seen the best out of the player he wanted to turn his side from champions of Europe to domestic title winners. A flying start quickly gave way to indifferent form and then the injury that contributed to a run that meant his last goals in the Premier League before Boxing Day were against the same opposition on September 11.

Just as important as this win felt for Chelsea, on a personal level, it could be hugely significant for Lukaku.

He was bought to make the difference and here he was doing precisely that.

Now Chelsea need it on a regular basis – but there are no guarantees this was the start of such a run for the forward.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Tuchel, himself, raised doubts over whether Lukaku would be able to play against Brighton on Wednesday.

“I asked him if he can play 45 minutes,” he said “I asked him and he said yes so we tried to play him for 45 minutes as a No9. There was no switch in our tactical formation.

“He does not need me to play in a game like this. He doesn’t need any speech for me. He has done nothing else in his whole life. He just needs to get fit and it is not so easy when you have a long injury, with a body like Rom and you catch Covid.

“He had 10 days and suffered from symptoms. We put him on the pitch for 45 minutes which was more than the physio department recommended for him.

“We thought we can take the risk and be more offensive with him. We are happy it went well for today so let’s see how the reaction is and where we go from here.”

It was a risk that paid off on the day – and if Chelsea are to take their title challenge into the second half of the season, much will depend on whether they can keep Lukaku on the pitch and at the point of their attack.

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