Chelsea rediscovered some of their fluent attacking form as they beat Lille 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday, but the talk at Stamford Bridge was more about the striker who did not play than the ones who did.
Record signing Romelu Lukaku sat on the bench as an unused substitute while fellow strikers Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic claimed the goals that put reigning champions Chelsea in the driving seat to advance to the quarter-finals.
On Saturday, against Crystal Palace, Lukaku had the fewest touches of the ball — seven — ever recorded for a player on the pitch for at least 90 minutes in a Premier League game since such data began to be collected in full in the 2003-04 season.
That unwanted record added to the questions being asked about the Belgian’s role in Thomas Tuchel’s side which has often looked more dangerous this season when Lukaku was absent with injury or due to COVID-19.
Lukaku scored 24 league goals and provided 11 assists for Inter Milan last season to help them clinch the Serie A title and he got off to a good start in his second spell at Stamford Bridge after his move to London in August.
He scored three goals in his first three Premier League games and linked up well with fellow strikers.
But he has scored only two more goals in the league since then and comments that he gave in a television interview, in which he said Tuchel’s system did not suit him, only added to the sense that Lukaku is not the right fit for Chelsea.
Tuchel told reporters after the win over Lille that he had decided Lukaku needed a break after starting in a string of games recently.
“The focus was today on intensity, on a high-speed game and hard work off the ball,” the German coach said. “Romelu struggled in the last games to deliver that.”
Lukaku did score two of Chelsea’s three goals during the Club World Cup tournament that the Londoners won in Abu Dhabi earlier this month.
But the threat posed by Havertz throughout Tuesday’s defeat of Lille, and his hard work rate, suggested the German may get the nod ahead of the Belgian when Chelsea come out of the tunnel at Wembley on Sunday for the League Cup final against Liverpool.