Chelsea's No9 curse: Why is dream Romelu Lukaku return going so badly wrong?

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Romelu Lukaku has gone from the final piece of the puzzle to just another problem for Thomas Tuchel.

The £97.5million club record signing was supposed to be a game-changer for Chelsea, the man to close the gap to Manchester City and, perhaps, deliver a first Premier League title since 2017.

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Instead, Tuchel finds himself further away from the top of the table than he was the day he took charge at Stamford Bridge almost a year ago.

And if the 13-point gap to Pep Guardiola’s runaway leaders is not enough to make him sit uneasily as he approaches his 12-month anniversary, his failure to get the best out of Lukaku only compounds his problems.

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When Roman Abramovich spends big, he expects a return on that investment. The struggles of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner contributed to Frank Lampard’s sacking last year. The German duo are still to find their feet in English football and now find themselves joined by Lukaku, who has already publicly voiced his frustrations since his summer move from Inter Milan.

The difference with Lukaku is that he was supposed to be the finished article. He already knew English football and already knew Chelsea, having come through the academy. He was also a proven winner with Inter, having fired them to the Italian title last season.

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In short, he was as risk-free an acquisition as there could be. So, why is his dream homecoming going so badly wrong? Long-term observers might attribute it to the curse of Chelsea’s No9 shirt. The biggest names have wilted under the weight of it: from Chris Sutton to Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao, Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain.

Lukaku craved it after returning to the club he supported as a boy, but it has brought him little luck, with the 28-year-old’s campaign derailed by fatigue, an ankle injury and Covid reducing him to just eight goals this season.

Whether it could be blamed for his decision to give an unauthorised interview to Italian TV in which he criticised Tuchel might be going a step too far.

But if his fitness issues have been mitigating factors in his struggles to replicate the form he showed in Italy, Tuchel’s role must also be taken into consideration.

He has so far failed to identify the best way to integrate Lukaku into an attack that has rarely looked fluid in his 12 months in charge.

Chelsea’s No9 curse: Why is dream Romelu Lukaku return going so badly wrong?
© Provided by Evening Standard Is Romelu Lukaku the latest in a long line of Chelsea No9s to have struggled with the pressure? (REUTERS)

At times, Lukaku has cut the same frustrated figure he did during his miserable spell at Manchester United when Chelsea have tried to use him as a target man with his back to goal.

He has had to cope with a lack of support and quality service in the areas where he is at his most dangerous.

Yet Tuchel is adamant it is not a case of the system that needs to change.

“I think we do everything to help him,” he said, ahead of tonight’s game with Brighton. “I think it’s the wrong question because it’s focusing on one player. He is a key player and we want him to be a key player, but for me, I think it is the wrong approach.

“This is what we do for any player. This is a team sport and it’s not about 10 players serving one player. It is not Chelsea and it is not football. Every player is there to serve the team. This is the highest principle and won’t change.”

Lukaku’s failure to take two good chances to give Chelsea the lead in their defeat to City at the weekend were highlighted by his manager on the day, risking further friction between the pair.

Chelsea’s No9 curse: Why is dream Romelu Lukaku return going so badly wrong?
© Provided by Evening Standard There still appears to be friction between Lukaku and Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel (Getty Images)

And, ahead of tonight’s game at Brighton, Tuchel again addressed his performance yesterday.

“I’m not so keen on talking about Romelu, why should we?” he said. “He had a huge chance that normally he does not miss. He had some half-chances that he could not, on this particular day, create chances out of it. He has some trouble keeping the ball and this can happen against Manchester City.”

If that was an attempt to the diffuse the situation, it has the potential to further inflame it and, perhaps, ensure the curse lives on.

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