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2 Jan, 2022 16:28

Chelsea make shock call on $130MN Lukaku

Chelsea record signing Romelu Lukaku appears to have paid the price for comments he made about Inter Milan ahead of the Premier League showdown with Liverpool
Chelsea make shock call on $130MN Lukaku

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich could be ruing the $130 million deal to bring Romelu Lukaku back to the club after a shock call by manager Thomas Tuchel ahead of the potentially crucial visit of Liverpool.

The Champions League winners are currently 11 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, making the meeting with Jurgen Klopp's men, who trail them by a single point and have a game in hand, a must-win game.

Days before the vital showdown, striker Lukaku caused controversy in an unauthorized interview in which he appeared to criticize coach Tuchel, communicated a desire to return to former club Inter Milan one day and said he was "not happy with the situation" at Stamford Bridge.

As punishment, the Belgium international will sit out Sunday's match and not even make the bench despite the Blues being ravaged by absences. 

Lukaku had scored in his last two matches after returning to training following an ankle injury and a positive Covid test.

Tuchel said during his pre-match press conference that he would stage "behind closed doors talks" with the club's record signing.

"I don't like it," Tuchel admitted of Lukaku's interview, which was reportedly recorded weeks ago but only aired on Thursday.

"But I don’t want to make more out of it than it actually is. It is very easy to take lines out of context."

NBC said that Lukaku had sent a text to former Manchester United goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was a teammate of his when the pair were at Everton, to reveal that he "can't say too much" about the saga.

"The situation is hot," he purportedly told Howard. "I have another meeting on Monday. After that, I can say more."

Ex-United and England defender Gary Neville said that no manager could be criticized for following Tuchel's approach.

"Control is critical for a manager and, if you have had those words said in the week, they're not easy words to hear for the manager or the owners who've invested £100 million from the club – but also for his teammates, who are looking for a brilliant season and trying to win the Premier League title," Neville told Sky Sports.

"Chelsea have got a great [locker] room in terms of quality but their star player, their biggest signing has come out and said [that].

"Tuchel has alluded to the fact that he wants him to train harder, he wants him to work harder. Chelsea will have been amazed that those comments have come out this week. It will have stunned them.

"Tuchel, because of his Champions League success, is in a position of strength. You're never in a position of total strength [at Chelsea] because you're always a few months away from getting the sack but he's done a brilliant job; I do think the players respect him. Those words will have hurt and they will have hurt his teammates."

Neville now believes that Lukaku and Chelsea will have a "transactional relationship" in which he will be judged purely on goals and performances – but the pundit feels Lukaku can redeem himself on the pitch.

"He has to now, somehow, try to win his way back into Thomas Tuchel's plans," said the eight-time Premier League winner.

"The fans have to try to accept him somewhat – they will if he carries on playing and doing what he's been doing.

"Win football matches and the fans will be won round. But it does become [something other than] a love story in a transactional relationship."

One reporter claimed to have been told that the squad is "broadly supportive" of how Tuchel has handed the whole affair.

On social media, opinion was divided as to whether Chelsea have made the right decision to discipline Lukaku by dropping him, with one observer receiving more than 1,000 'likes' for calling the omission of the 28-year-old correct.

"He made those comments off the pitch and therefore they had to be addressed off the pitch," said an opposition voice.

"As far as he is doing well in training, he has to be [in the squad]. I'm not a Chelsea fan but really think you guys got it wrong, which could be costly against Liverpool."

"He wasn't going to do much today – let's be honest," said another. "He's awful against defenders he can't physically dominate and he isn't doing that against [Virgil] Van Dijk or [Ibrahima] Konate."

Tuchel complained about his depleted options and explained that he had relied on academy players and a 14-man squad for the 0-0 draw at also-rans Wolves on December 19, adding that there are limits to how often a team can "survive" matches with so many players missing.

"At some point it catches [up with] you," he said. "We will push to the maximum to beat Liverpool.

"The day after Liverpool, no matter if we make it [through] or not, the [injury] situation will catch us again... and that’s why we struggle. This will not go away with one win."

Chelsea are without England full-backs Reece James – who has a hamstring problem – and Ben Chilwell, who is likely to miss the rest of the season following knee surgery.

Tuchel will also be missing Andreas Christensen and Timo Werner against the Reds.

Chelsea will hope to resolve the issue quickly ahead of a run of four matches in ten days starting with a visit from Tottenham in the EFL Cup on Wednesday.

They then host Chesterfield in the FA Cup on Saturday and face Spurs in the return leg the following Wednesday before heading to runaway table-toppers City on January 15.