Looking at the positives from Thomas Tuchel’s big choice call, Romelu Lukaku at least has a better understanding of how Chelsea I aspire to play now.
It was a resilient and intelligent performance by the European champions, who did well with the £97.5m conundrum watching from the bench for 90 minutes, and based on that evidence, Lukaku can be forgiven for questioning whether his new dwindling role is here to stay.
After all, there’s no good reason why Belgium’s Tuchel will return when Chelsea face Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday. It could be even more humiliation for Lukaku after such a comfortable win against him night.
Chelsea were much more efficient with Kai Havertz providing movement, mobility and slashing up front and had a firm grip on the Round of 16 match after Christian Pulisic gave them a 2-0 lead to take France next month, at which point Lukaku may already be planning a return to Inter Milan.
The growing feeling is that a clean break suits all parties. ‘A look of tiredness’ was how Tuchel explained his decision to part with the Chelsea record signing but no one was buying that. As always, the evidence was right there on the field.
Lukaku had only mustered seven touchdowns against Crystal Palace in his previous game, the fewest any player has scored in the Premier League in over 90 minutes since Opta started tracking the track in 2003. The anonymity figures made it easy for Tuchel, Which seemed to be something by choosing a front three that gave him lateral speed, deception and unpredictability in the final third.
It was a controversial decision, and Tuchel had to pay off. Chelsea stumbled recently, and the title challenge crashed during the bleak winter period, causing heavy losses to Chelsea. The next drama never felt so far away, and while there was a sweet moment before kick-off – the injured trio of Ben Chilwell, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Rhys James as they previewed the club’s final trophy across the field – the crowd’s applause was accompanied by the realization that this season will not be defined by glory clubs World Cup.
This was more important than Abu Dhabi and it looked as if Chelsea knew it early on. Pulisic took the match to Lille with some quick kicks and should have reached the opening goal within four minutes, and Havertz somehow converted Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross from close range.
Could Lukaku score? likely. The point, however, is that Chelsea is much more flexible with Havertz operating as a false nine. His gentle move annoyed Sven Putman and Jose Fonte, Lille’s central defender, and he quickly put his early stride behind, turning inside before making an excellent save from Leo Jardim seven minutes later.
Eleventh in the French League, Lille quickly cracked. Hakim Ziyech raised a corner from the left and Havertz made it look easy in the middle, as he stepped up uncontrollably to send a rebounding header behind Jardim.
Tuchel had him acquitted. For a while, with N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic dominating the midfield, the traffic was one-way. Marcos Alonso approached with a direct shot. Pulisic kept running. Havertz roared around menacingly.
But with caution, I entered the night of the competition. Tuchel became irritable, and roared when Zich missed an opportunity to shoot. Chelsea were making a lot of mistakes and Lille was getting more confident. Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan David looked dangerous, and Chelsea, who survived some skirmishes in their area, were relieved to escape when Antonio Rudiger cut Renato Sanchez’s cross in front of Edward Mendy.
Lil had hope after the break. Azpilicueta was working hard to contain Bamba and Chelsea started to fall behind. Several counterattacks were fading and Tuchel’s fears heightened when Kovacic gave way to Ruben Loftus-Cheek before limping into the tunnel.
Chelsea was hesitant. Alonso received a ball saved by Zeki Celik and Havertz shot, but the match became small and Tuchel had to make another adjustment when Ziyech fell due to an ankle problem just before the hour.
Despite this, this allowed Tuchel to regain control. He chose to use Saúl Ñíguez instead of another striker and more bodies in the middle meaning there was a chance of releasing Kanté, who accepted his new role with relish, denting Lille’s optimism with the round leading up to Chelsea’s second goal.
The increase came out of nowhere. Suddenly, after Lille’s goalless attack collapsed, Kante was tearing up the middle and carrying Chelsea up the field. Nobody could match that and there was quality at the end of the race, and the midfielder’s weighted pass sent Pulisic into the goal to score with a superb kick.
It was a well-deserved goal for Pulisic and Chelsea were able to relax. Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva and Rudiger were determined to protect the clean sheet, and Hatem Ben Arfa’s introduction was not enough for the night, though at least the former Newcastle winger took to the pitch. With Timo Werner dispatched in front of him, the same cannot be said of Lukaku.
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