At the start of the month Romelu Lukaku’s Chelsea future looked dead and buried when Thomas Tuchel left him on the bench while hunting a late equaliser at Everton.
Instead of throwing his £98million striker into the mix, Tuchel decided his best shot at rescuing a point would be to introduce wide forwards in Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech, and Lukaku’s vacant, miserable stare into space spoke a thousand words.
But what a difference ten days can make.
Fast forward that amount of time and the Belgian, now boasting a return of three goals in his last two Premier League appearances, has suddenly revived his Blues career and thrown his hat into the ring to start Saturday’s FA Cup final against Liverpool.
Romelu Lukaku has sparked back into life at Chelsea ahead of the FA Cup final on Saturday
His Blues future looked dead and buried when he was left out away at Everton ten days ago
In search of attacking inspiration after scoring just twice in three matches, Tuchel turned to Lukaku against Wolves last weekend and soon reaped the rewards when he fired them into a two-goal lead.
Chelsea may have blown that advantage in the end but one of few positives they took away was the performance of their previously-misfiring frontman, who for the first time in almost six months appeared in harmony with his fellow forwards and deadly in front of goal.
He first kept his nerve to slot home from the penalty spot, an underrated feat given the pressure on his shoulders, before latching onto a Pulisic pass and sweeping the ball in expertly from the edge of the box.
The quick-fire double was Lukaku’s most joyous moment in a Chelsea shirt since he bagged a second goal in as many games against Brighton on December 29, so joyous in fact that the same fans who wanted him gone on the back of that bombshell Sky Italia interview earlier this year were left chanting his name.
But two goals against Wolves last weekend suddenly revived his fortunes at Stamford Bridge
The Belgian swept home from the penalty spot before scoring from the edge of the area
He then followed that up with another goal in their 3-0 win away at Leeds on Wednesday night
Not only did he score, Lukaku was much more involved in Chelsea’s attacking play in both
Having linked up well with Pulisic in the draw with Wolves it was no surprise to see them get the nod again at Leeds on Wednesday night. Tuchel’s false-nine system, centred around Kai Havertz, had become stale in recent weeks and the pair have sparked some much-needed life into his frontline.
Against a 10-man, relegation-threatened Leeds it somehow took Lukaku 83 minutes to find the back of the net, and he made hard work of it before converting from close range. Yet, the most striking difference and encouragement for Tuchel is his increased involvement in recent matches.
During their 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in February, Opta revealed that he had broken the record for the fewest number of touches in a Premier League match, recording an alarming seven at Selhurst Park. According to football statistics website WhoScored.com, Lukaku enjoyed 29 touches against Wolves and 47 in the win at Leeds.
Those figures speak volumes about the level of involvement he is now enjoying at the pinpoint of Chelsea’s attack, with his hold-up play and combination with Pulisic and Mason Mount particularly impressive in those two fixtures.
It’s taken him long enough, but Tuchel finally appears to have figured how to get Lukaku firing and smiling again. And his dramatic rise in form has left the Blues boss with exactly the type of selection headache every manager dreams of ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup final.
So should he stick or twist?
Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel now has a big decision to make ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup final
By leaving Lukaku out Tuchel risks opening himself up to criticism if they fail to beat Liverpool
Logic suggests Tuchel would be taking a huge gamble by leaving Lukaku out at Wembley on Saturday. The 28-year-old’s return to the side has reenergised Chelsea upfront and got his own confidence flowing again. Demoting him back to the bench will open him up to criticism if Chelsea come unstuck.
Nevertheless, Tuchel would be justified to maintain reservations about his big-game influence. In outings against the so-called Big Six this season, Lukaku has only registered one goal contribution, coming all the way back in August against Arsenal.
After falling by the wayside in the title race and losing the last two FA Cup finals, Chelsea cannot afford another Wembley defeat here and their head coach may be tempted to entrust in the Mount-Havertz-Pulisic axis which almost earned them victory in their recent Premier League draw and Carabao Cup final stalemate – followed by a penalties loss – against Jurgen Klopp’s men.
Though when glancing back at that previous cup-final encounter, Lukaku’s performance off the bench certainly helps his cause. The ex-Inter Milan hero caused Liverpool’s backline a number of problems on the spacious Wembley turf, and if not for the tightest of offside calls he would have broken the deadlock in extra-time.
His agent (Federico Pastorello) said Lukaku had ‘problems’ at Chelsea and would seek a meeting with the new owners – something Lukaku had to respond to on social media
Lukaku posted this on his Instagram story in relation to his agent Pastorello’s comments
What hasn’t helped Lukaku’s cause was some pre-final drama which he didn’t need, sparked by comments made from his agent which Tuchel admitted he had been caught unaware by.
Lukaku’s agent Federico Pastorello, told an Italian newspaper there was a ‘problem’ with Lukaku at Chelsea and that he would seek a meeting with the club’s new owners this summer to discuss it.
On Instagram, Lukaku wrote: ‘Never ever will I let someone speak for me. I kept my mouth shut and focused on helping the team end the season in the best way possible.
‘So if someone out there is trying to say something about me and the club, it’s not in my name.’
While his record in key fixtures is underwhelming, Lukaku seems to be back on track at Chelsea and will be brimming with belief after his breakthrough over the past ten days. It’s a tricky decision to make, but Tuchel risks undoing all of that progress by casting him to one side again.
Logic suggests he should stick with the £98million striker at Wembley this weekend