By Liam Twomey
Given the events of this week, there is likely to be more than a hint of tension in the air when Chelsea host West Brom at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Yet for all the disenchantment felt by Chelsea fans, perhaps the most frustrated spectator of all will be Romelu Lukaku. Denied the chance to feature for West Brom by the terms of his loan agreement, he may well look long and hard at the hapless, sorry figure of Fernando Torres and wonder why he has not yet been granted the chance to compete in a Blue shirt.
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“I have a great rapport with the manager,” Lukaku told reporters back in December. “He challenges me mentally. If I don't play, it's challenging me to do more. I want to develop.”
And develop he has. Despite occasionally finding starting opportunities limited, the Belgian has netted 12 Premier League goals this season – five more than Torres. He also appears to be a man in form, with five of those strikes coming in his last six league appearances.
By taking such a laissez-faire approach to Lukaku’s continuing adaptation to English football, Chelsea can now take no credit for his progress. Yet it need not have been this way. For over the past six months, the prodigiously gifted 19-year-old has shown enough to at least prompt some at Stamford Bridge to wonder whether he could have been more than a wide-eyed understudy this term.
Lukaku would have at least provided stiffer competition for Torres than the injury-prone and untrusted Daniel Sturridge, or the masked incarnation of Demba Ba which already seems a shadow of his lethal Newcastle best. On simple merit, he would even have supplanted the faded Spaniard.
Of course, all logic suggests Roman Abramovich would have shown no greater tolerance towards Lukaku benching Torres than he did to Didier Drogba last summer. Anyone who gets in the way of the £50m man trying to play his way back into form is swiftly discarded, and Benitez was appointed almost solely because of his body of work with the striker at Liverpool.
But Roberto Di Matteo would probably have appreciated the political problems posed by the presence of an in-form Lukaku. His unwavering selection of Drogba during last season’s miraculous Champions League run suggests a man willing to challenge his owner’s misguided obsession for the good of the team.
There is reason, too, to suggest that Lukaku might have improved Chelsea’s fortunes as first-choice striker. While comparisons with Drogba are over-simplistic, the similarities are there for all to see. He may lack experience, but the young Belgian boasts the physique of a heavyweight boxer, as well as possessing far greater pace than the big Ivorian.
Lukaku is remarkable in that his skill set allows him to both stretch defences which press high – as Juventus did on that fateful night in Turin – and dismantle those which sit deep. In addition, he would almost certainly have made better use of the service provided by the likes of Juan Mata, Hazard and Oscar than Torres has because, put bluntly, almost any decent striker could.
Had Lukaku scored freely and led his side to victory against domestic and European opposition, Abramovich would have been put in a difficult situation. For all his desire to remove Di Matteo, it is difficult to justify sacking a manager on a winning run, and even the Russian has never done it.
Moreover, for all the faith and money the Chelsea owner has put in Torres, Lukaku also represents a considerable investment, and one which should be have an even greater bearing on the direction of the club over the next decade. Stifling a blossoming youngster in favour of a 28-year-old many believe to be in terminal decline would have been a huge strategic error even by his low standards.
Ultimately, though, we will never know. Di Matteo was denied Lukaku’s burgeoning talents and eventually dismissed. Torres remains listless even at the familiar promptings of Benitez as the 19-year-old occupies himself with scoring goals and winning matches for West Brom. Now he wants to stay.
“I've had a lot of contact with Chelsea and I've told them I'm happy here,” he added back in December. “For me, it is a one-year loan. Then it may be another year again because I need to play as much as I can. I can learn here. I can improve here.” Only not this weekend.
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