Destiny is calling for Romelu Lukaku. The 28-year-old has completed a sensational return to Chelsea from Internazionale in a deal that fell just short of breaking the British transfer record for the second time in as many weeks, after Manchester City‘s £100 million signing of Jack Grealish.
The financial effects of COVID-19 have polarised clubs in terms of their power in the transfer market. Chelsea, backed by the billionaire owner Roman Abramovich and operating with a shrewd and ruthless recruitment strategy, are well placed to exploit the vulnerabilities of teams like Inter.
The Nerazzurri ended an 11-year wait for the Serie A title last season, yet owners Suning have held discussions to sell the club as they face the twin threats of reduced income resulting from the pandemic and an instruction from Chinese President Xi Jinping demanding overseas investors refocus their ambitions domestically. Inter had already transferred defender Achraf Hakimi to Paris Saint-Germain for €70m, and have now lost Lukaku, who became the leading star in Serie A after scoring 44 goals in 63 starts.
The fan backlash is already underway with Inter supporters furiously opposed to his departure. Protests are putting pressure on a beleaguered board.
As ESPN had previously reported, the Blues were weighing up their options after having two bids rejected but a pivotal factor has been Lukaku subsequently informing the Inter hierarchy he would like to leave if a suitable bid arrived.
So why did Lukaku want to join Chelsea? The answer lies, at least in part, in finally getting the chance to emulate one of his all-time heroes: Didier Drogba.
When Lukaku signed for Chelsea from Anderlecht for £18m in 2011, backroom staff arranged for the promising, but raw, 18-year-old to sit next to Drogba in the changing room at Cobham.
There were obvious similarities given their powerful physiques and comparable playing styles: robust centre-forwards capable of bullying defenders into submission. But Lukaku came to admire Drogba as much for the adversity he overcame earlier in his career.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) August 12, 2021
Drogba admitted in his autobiography “Commitment” that he thought about leaving Chelsea towards the end of his second season at the club, in 2005-06, having felt misunderstood and underappreciated as he acclimatised to English football. He was written off in some quarters as a blunt instrument, derided by others as a diver for going to ground too easily.
Yet by the time Lukaku arrived in west London five years later, Drogba had cemented his legendary status as one of the Premier League’s all-time greats. Lukaku couldn’t get a game, watching on from the sidelines as the Ivory Coast international earned sporting immortality by scoring the winning penalty against Bayern Munich to deliver Chelsea’s maiden Champions League trophy with what appeared to be his last kick for the club.
It was a fairytale finale that led Lukaku to describe Drogba a few years later as his “icon,” even though that storyline came at the expense of his own. Chelsea preferred to bring Drogba back as a veteran for a second spell at the club in 2014 rather than entrust Lukaku with the responsibility of leading the line.
Lukaku made just 15 appearances for Chelsea and was instead loaned out to West Bromwich Albion and then Everton, who paid a then-club record £28m for his services in 2015. Drogba finished his career with one Champions League crown, four Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, three League Cups and one Turkish Super Lig title with Galatasaray in addition to 66 goals from 106 international appearances, an Ivory Coast record.
Sources have told ESPN that the pair are still regularly in touch, sharing advice and experiences that have led Lukaku to a point where he feels ready to prove himself in English football all over again. Drogba cannot wait either, pre-empting Thursday’s confirmation with a tweet five days earlier with a picture of Lukaku and the words: “He’s coming home.” It feels as though the time is right for both Lukaku and Chelsea. It feels as though the time is right for both Lukaku and Chelsea.
Drogba scored 164 goals in 381 games for Chelsea. Only Frank Lampard (211), Bobby Tambling (202) and Kerry Dixon (193) have more. He became a fearsome centre-forward, capable of winning games on his own, aligning sublime technique and intelligence to awesome power and aerial prowess. He was so often, quite simply, unplayable.
Chelsea have largely found him irreplaceable, but not for the want of trying. It is estimated that club have spent in the region of £230m on forwards since he ended his first eight-year stay in 2012. A dozen or so have tried to fill Drogba’s shoes but perhaps only one has come close.
Diego Costa, a £32m signing from Atletico Madrid in 2014, spent three years at the club during which they won the Premier League title twice, chiefly because of his 52 goals in 89 games. Costa’s antagonistic style — 31 yellow cards in 120 appearances only scratches the surface of how he scratched others — won him few fans outside Stamford Bridge, and ultimately he grew tired of English football in a way Drogba had threatened to.
Aside from Costa, Olivier Giroud has performed an admirable supporting role in recent seasons, but Fernando Torres, Alvaro Morata, Michy Batshuayi, Loic Remy and Demba Ba all fell badly short just as loan moves for Radamel Falcao, Gonzalo Higuain and Alexandre Pato yielded few dividends. Timo Werner has threatened to join that list after a profligate first season in England, hence why Lukaku has been recruited.
Sources have told ESPN that Chelsea’s primary target was Erling Haaland, but Borussia Dortmund are reluctant to part with the 21-year-old prodigy this summer, and there is a widespread acknowledgment that the Blues urgently need a 20-goal striker to challenge for the Premier League title.
There were doubts whether Lukaku could be that man when he last played in England. Few would bet against him now.
Lukaku almost joined Chelsea in 2017 when it became clear he had outgrown Everton. Jose Mourinho’s presence at Manchester United was a significant factor in his decision to move to Old Trafford, but sources claim of greater importance was Chelsea’s reluctance to pay Lukaku’s agent, Mino Raiola, a huge fee.
Chelsea legend Frank Leboeuf is happy for Romelu Lukaku who is reportedly closing in on a return to Stamford Bridge.
His two years at United were mixed. A blistering start — 11 of his 42 goals for the club, or 26%, came in his first two months there — gave way to indifferent form that led to questions over his application and conditioning.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Mourinho in December 2018 and set about assembling a squad that truly wanted to play for United. He decided they were better off without Lukaku, who found himself at Inter in 2019 facing the task of proving himself all over again.
He began that task by shedding weight. Lukaku lost around 3 kilograms within a month of arriving at the San Siro after manager Antonio Conte told him to follow the Bresaola diet, which focuses on an intake of white meat and vegetables.
He has dramatically improved his link-up play, something Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel admits his team are lacking following Giroud’s departure to AC Milan.
“With the exit of Olivier Giroud from the type of players [we have], we could use a player used to play with their back to goals whose strength is to keep possession from long balls so we can add this direct style of play to our portfolio, and this is the characteristic of player that is not Tammy [Abraham], Timo or Kai [Havertz],” the Blues boss said earlier this month. “This is a profile we don’t have in the squad and could be useful, but not for any cost and not hectic or in panic as no matter what happens we will be competitive.”
Lukaku has matured into a complete centre-forward, albeit one Chelsea have had to pay top dollar for, likely with little resale value. His all-time record of 251 goals in 508 appearances at club level and 64 in 98 for Belgium is a pedigree that few can match but, perhaps more significantly, he feels ready to be considered among the best in the world.
“When they talk about [Robert] Lewandowski, [Karim] Benzema, [Luis] Suarez, [Harry] Kane, they would say it’s world-class level, and with me it’s always about being in good form,” Lukaku said during Euro 2020. “In the last two years I think I have shown it’s not just good form. I belong with that group, I am at that level.”
Drogba would surely approve.