Antonio Conte shook his head with a rueful expression. “It’s not easy,” the Chelsea manager said. “Every game. To make the best decision between Pedro or Willian. It’s not easy to keep Cesc sometimes on the bench. That is not easy for a player who is used to playing every game.”
What Conte was expressing was football’s equivalent of the First-World Problem (you could argue that in the gilded cage of elite football, all problems are first-world problems, but that is probably another discussion). Conte is developing quite a line in these. After crushing Tottenham 4-2 at Wembley, he spent ages complaining about the fixture schedule. Here, after a 3-0 win that brought the title within fingertip reach, he was at it again.
Pedro or Willian? Fabregas or Kanté? My diamond shoes need reheeling, and have you seen how much Mercedes-Benz charge for sheepskin seat covers? All good clean fun, of course – and this win encapsulated the wealth of attacking options at Conte’s disposal.
Diego Costa still struggling for form? Eden Hazard marked out of the game? Not a problem: up steps Pedro with a 25-yard screamer to break the deadlock. Off the bench springs Willian to make the points safe. Trying to stop Chelsea is like an infuriating game of Whack-a-Mole, a Sisyphean labour of infinite plugholes and finite plugs.
For Conte, this is the most beautiful sort of headache imaginable. For Everton, the headache is real. A fine season is drifting to a close rather than marching, and although they competed for long periods of this game, a deflection on to a post in the first minute was ultimately as close as they got. The difference between the sides is encapsulated by the fact that Chelsea have seven players with five or more league goals, Everton just one. If you stop Romelu Lukaku, you stop Everton.
Lukaku is having the best season of his career, in line for the Golden Boot and with a player-of-the-year nomination to match. But behind the figures lies a more nuanced picture of Lukaku’s relationship with Everton: a relationship that for all the rumours, intrigue, tittle-tattle and anonymous briefings feels, at a basic sporting level, like it may have run its course.
This was another missed opportunity against top-six opposition, against whom he has performed significantly worse this season. Three touches in the Chelsea penalty area. The usual volley of long balls and lost causes to chase. And so, on the face of things, you would conclude that Lukaku had a poor game. But then, it was hard to say for certain, because he played in so little of it. Did Lukaku fail Everton or are Everton failing him?
The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Lukaku has been linked with a return to Chelsea this summer, and it is tempting to wonder how he might thrive with their world-class service, how he might develop under Conte, a manager who demands total commitment from his strikers, whether they have the ball or not. Perhaps this is the gamble he needs to take with his career. He may sink or he may swim, but he should probably try to find out.
For all the rich potential of Ross Barkley, Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman or Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the sort of players that Lukaku needs around him to grow and develop, to sharpen his game against the best defences, are not the sort of players that Everton can acquire.
He could hang around for another season, bang in another 25 goals, secure another lucrative deal, bump his transfer value up further, but in the long term it would probably do neither Lukaku nor Everton much good.
The Everton manager, Ronald Koeman, you suspect, is already planning for Lukaku’s departure, which is why he has made a goalscoring midfielder his transfer priority. His best teams have always shared the goals around. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart at Ajax; Jefferson Farfan, Arouna Koné and Ibrahim Afellay at PSV; Shane Long, Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mané at Southampton.
At the moment, Everton are like a boxer with one punch. Imagine if Koeman could use a Lukaku windfall to build a multi-pronged team. It could be the making of them. Letting go of their star striker may seem like a wilful act of self-harm. In the long run, it could set them free.