Lukaku earns Chelsea and himself a shot at redemption in Club World Cup final

Chidalu Obiajulu

It was hardly 1001 Arabian Nights but Romelu Lukaku’s five-game goal drought felt just as long at times.

However, it finally came to an end on Wednesday night, as the Chelsea centre forward’s 32nd-minute strike earned his side a 1-0 victory over Al-Hilal in a tight game at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Lukaku has come in for a lot of criticism of late, but he was a constant threat against a team that pushed the Blues to the limit, despite their underdog status.

Indeed, this felt like a big night for the big Belgian, who, when the full-time whistle blew, dropped to the ground along with several other Blues players.

There was a lot of pressure on both Lukaku and his team-mates going into a tournament that everybody expects Chelsea to win.

Assistant coach Zsolt Low even revealed afterwards that the team needed some words of encouragement at half-time from manager Thomas Tuchel, who had to stay at home in London after testing positive for Covid-19 last week.

“We had a good conversation,” Low told reporters. “Thomas had the same feeling that we were a little nervous and had a lot of easy ball losses.

“We talked about telling the guys to calm down, find the rhythm and not fight so hard for hard solutions.”

It’s easy to understand why the players may have been feeling the pressure a tad. The chance to become world champions doesn’t come around often, as Chelsea know all too well.

They’ve only been here once before and the shock loss to Corinthians in the 2012 Club World Cup final remains one of the club’s most disappointing defeats.

On occasions such as these, the responsibility often falls on goalscorers to step up to the mark and, thankfully, that’s exactly what Lukaku did on the night.

“Everyone’s very happy he scored,” Low admitted in his post-match press conference. “He fought very hard and tried hard in the last game.

“That’s why we give him the chance all the time. We hoped for a bit of luck to score today. He’s very happy, we’re very happy and hope he continues and scores in the final.”

Decisive goals are the least that’s expected of the the £97.5 million ($136m) signing from Inter and a solitary strike against Al-Hilal won’t appease those supporters who remain upset by the comments he made about Tuchel’s tactics and his enduring love for the Nerazzurri in an unsanctioned interview with Sky Sport Italia in December.

Tuchel’s appeal for the fans to forgive and forget is only likely to be heard when Lukaku starts winning matches on a consistent basis.

However, Hakim Ziyech, who has been Chelsea’s best attacker in recent weeks, also feels that Lukaku deserves more understanding when it comes to discussing his struggles so far this season.

“There is no question of his quality,” the winger argued. “In the beginning, it was all good, but then, after he came back from injury, he caught Covid.

“I also think that everybody in the squad, not only me but everybody, [needs to provide chances for him].

“Some teams we are playing against, they play in a back five. He is by himself against three defenders. Is that not hard?

“It doesn’t matter who you are, if you have three defenders against you, it is hard to find space.

“For example, even if he [beats] one, then another one arrives. He also needs space to make his runs.

“So, I think that helping him is something we have to work on. Sometimes in games, it’s really good, but other times, a bit less. There is still a lot of room to improve.

“But there is no question over his quality. He’s shown it for the last few years. It is just a matter of time.”

Lukaku has certainly achieved a lot in his career but, for Chelsea, the time is now.

Roman Abramovich is likely to be at the final with a host of staff, while Tuchel is also expected to be in attendance, as long as he secures a negative test before Saturday.

The magnitude of becoming world champions will, of course, weigh heavy on the Blues.

They need to face the Palmeiras challenge with great enthusiasm and concentration as the Copa Libertadores winners will be taking his game as seriously as every South American finalist before them.

“They are going to play for everything,” Chelsea’s Brazil-born Italy midfielder Jorginho warned. “This is very important for a team in Brazil.

“It is the same for us but definitely, we are going to give everything in this final and we need to be prepared.

“I think [they want to prove they are better than European teams]. For them, that’s a big thing. They are going to come for us. We need to be prepared for that.”

The Blues have won 20 trophies in 19 years under Abramovich but they’ve never lifted the Club World Cup.

If Lukaku wants to feel like royalty in one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the Arab world, then he has to step up again on Saturday.

The throne is there for the taking, as is a golden chance to mend his relationship with Chelsea’s fans.