On the eve of a World Cup group stage decider against Croatia that could spell the end for Belgium’s “golden generation”, coach Roberto Martinez went on the attack.
“You’ve got (media) outlets in Belgium who are quite happy to jump on fake news,” he said in a news conference on Wednesday in response to reports that Romelu Lukaku was forced to step in and separate team-mates Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen during angry dressing room recriminations that were claimed to have followed a shock 2-0 defeat to Morocco.
The reports were initially compelling and not just in light of Belgium’s second underwhelming performance of the tournament. It’s not difficult to imagine that when a man the size of Lukaku tells everyone around him to calm down, no one needs to be told twice. It is, however, getting harder and harder to remember him being quite so decisive on a football pitch. In his 10-minute cameo against Morocco — his first competitive action in almost a month — he failed to register a shot attempt and touched the ball just three times.
Martinez went into this tournament knowing Lukaku’s rehabilitation timetable for the hamstring injury he suffered in October would likely rule him out of the first two group-stage matches. His recovery has instead been managed with a view to working him back into the team from Thursday’s match against Croatia onwards — except, in a development few predicted, there now won’t be an ‘onwards’ for this team if they don’t win.
Lukaku doesn’t have the luxury of slowly easing his way back into rhythm. Belgium need their all-time top scorer firing right now. Chelsea have a vested interest here, too. The threat of early World Cup elimination could spark the recovery of an extravagantly expensive asset that has become more distressed with every passing week of 2022.
Allowing their new club’s most expensive-ever signing to return to Inter Milan on loan was the first big decision that Chelsea co-owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital made last summer. It is also one they felt a measure of regret about soon afterwards.
The previous Roman Abramovich regime would not have sanctioned such a humiliating admission of defeat on terms so friendly to the Italian giants, even at the risk of undermining then-head coach Thomas Tuchel. Boehly and Clearlake drew a harder line with Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech later in the window, insisting they could only leave Stamford Bridge on permanent deals for transfer fees that made business sense.
There was a benefit to granting Lukaku’s wish; he agreed to a significant pay cut for this season to return to Inter, who covered the remainder of his salary in its entirety. The Belgian’s removal from the top of Chelsea’s pay structure — and later Werner’s, too — freed up room to bring in new high earners such as Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and offer lucrative long-term extensions to Reece James and Mason Mount.
But it was a problem parked, not a problem solved. For all the talk of an informal agreement between Chelsea and Inter to extend Lukaku’s stay at San Siro for next season, there is no obligation to renew. Nor is there much incentive for the Serie A club to do so, since the Belgian has been far from worth the investment in 2021-22.
An ankle injury picked up on Belgium duty disrupted Lukaku’s summer and hamstring issues since have blighted his attempts to return to the kind of Serie A form that convinced Chelsea to pay £97.5million ($116m) to bring him back to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2021. “A big rip-off,” former Inter president Massimo Moratti said of Lukaku on Gianluca Rossi’s YouTube channel last weekend. “He has practically never played.”
Lukaku has played just 256 minutes of competitive football for Inter since his return. According to Transfermarkt, he has missed more days (110) due to injury since June than he had in the previous three years. There have even been suggestions that Inter’s medical staff are shocked and alarmed by the sudden fragility of the Belgian’s previously durable body.
At the very least, these injury concerns will be a significant factor in any assessment that Inter make of Lukaku’s long-term viability as an elite goalscorer. It’s important for future projections to note that he has been playing regular first-team football since the age of 16 and therefore has significantly more minutes in his legs by this stage of his career than most 29-year-olds.
Startlingly, his career tally of 45,615 minutes for club and country according to FBref is higher than even that of Aubameyang (44,686), who is four years his senior.
Chelsea moving for Aubameyang in August raised eyebrows due to his age, but the commitment is only two years with an option for a third. At the end of this season, Lukaku will still have three years left to run on the five-year, £340,000-a-week contract he signed in 2021. Paying such a gargantuan salary for the full length of that deal could seriously hamper Boehly and Clearlake’s efforts to revamp Graham Potter’s squad in the short to medium term.
The more palatable scenario is that Lukaku plays well enough to rebuild some semblance of value, either to the point that Inter once again come to regard him as essential, another club with the requisite resources takes an interest, or Potter decides he can use him at Chelsea.
Time is running out to make any of those outcomes realistic, but Lukaku steadying a rocking Belgian ship — on the pitch — against Croatia would leave room for hope.
(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
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