It is difficult to say what will please Jose Mourinho more about the enforced absence of Romelu Lukaku from the Everton side that takes on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday – the fact he cannot make his parent club suffer or the fact that the Special One will not have to field pointed questions about a dazzling performance from the giant Belgian.
During Chelsea’s early-season wobbles it was Lukaku’s Goodison Park heroics and Juan Mata’s mysterious exile which made up the two ends of the stick used to beat Mourinho. The former Anderlecht man scored eight goals in his first nine Premier League matches for Everton at a time when Samuel Eto’o looked shot and Fernando Torres appeared as listless as ever.
On Nov. 29, after Lukaku had told the BBC he had enjoyed no contact with Mourinho since leaving Stamford Bridge, the Portuguese finally snapped. “I'm telling him now: tell the country why you left,” he told reporters. “He has to say. Next time ask him why he left on loan one more season.
“If you keep quiet all the time, you keep quiet all the time. When you enjoy to speak, speak everything. Don't speak only half of it. It's a simple question: 'Why did you leave Chelsea?' Ask him.”
It emerged that Lukaku, disillusioned by the signing of Eto’o and fearful of spending the season before a World Cup languishing on the bench, had requested to leave. There had even been reports he asked to go immediately after missing a penalty against Bayern Munich in the European Super Cup. Mourinho, who intended to work closely with the 20-year-old, was initially unwilling but eventually relented and the Everton deal was done despite rival interest from West Brom.
While the parting may have been less than joyous, the consequences look increasingly as if they will prove to be universally beneficial.
Everton and Lukaku are perfect for each other this season. The pressures of leading the line for Chelsea after just one breakthrough season at West Brom – in which 15 of his 38 appearances came as an impact substitute – would have been an unreasonably heavy burden for even a 20-year-old blessed with extraordinarily broad shoulders.
Instead, a season as first-choice striker at Goodison Park as part of a talented, expansive team playing above expectation transforms his career path from an intimidating leap of faith into a serene climb up a steady ladder.
Working with Roberto Martinez – widely regarded as one of the Premier League’s most technically and tactically gifted coaches – has already helped refine the all-round game of a striker whose outstanding natural attributes are physical, and will continue to do so.
For his part, Martinez was able to acquire an attacking weapon he could never have hoped to afford as he looked to build on the solid defensive foundation bequeathed to him by David Moyes.
Chelsea has also not missed Lukaku. The lack of a world-class goalscorer remains the most evident obstacle to Mourinho celebrating his first season back at Stamford Bridge with major silverware, but a run of one goal in his last 11 matches has added credibility to the view that the Belgian is not yet ready to be the solution. He has nine for the season, just one more than Eto’o and Torres.
Even with their striker troubles the Blues lead the Premier League after 26 games, having scored as many goals (48) as Arsenal. Manchester City and Liverpool are both far more devastating but, as Mourinho would likely point out, points trump goal difference when the champion is crowned.
Looking further ahead, there remains hope that Lukaku will return to Chelsea this summer ready to be the final piece in the jigsaw. The man himself feels ready for a grander stage. “It is high time that I play in the Champions League,” he told Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws earlier this month. “It is the next step I need in my development.”
If he can repair what appears a tense relationship with Mourinho and prove himself capable, Lukaku will get his wish at Stamford Bridge. If not he will have no shortage of suitors, and the Blues can harbor realistic hopes of making a significant profit on the 18 million pounds they paid Anderlecht to acquire his services in Aug. 2011, fund a pursuit of the striker they want and still meet Financial Fair Play requirements.
Such an outcome might seem callous but it is worth remembering that, in the end, this is an example of that rarest of things in football: A situation with no real losers.
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