Lukaku returns just in time to keep Chelsea's title dreams alive

Romelu Lukaku Chelsea 2021-22Getty Images

With Chelsea's Premier League title hopes seemingly slipping away from them in recent weeks, Thomas Tuchel needed a hero.

Fortunately for the Blues' manager and all of the club's fans, he is finally able to call upon his £97.5 million ($136m) club-record signing Romelu Lukaku, and at Villa Park on Boxing Day, the Belgium international showed the difference he can make when he is fit and firing.

Facing a nine-point deficit to leaders Manchester City at kick-off and after struggling for much of the first half against Aston Villa, Lukaku was introduced off the bench for only his sixth appearance since mid-October.

What he produced could yet be the catalyst for the European champions to get their season back on track, as Lukaku first headed Chelsea in front 10 minutes after his introduction, before winning a stoppage-time penalty to seal the points in a 3-1 come-from-behind victory.

As if to highlight Chelsea's attacking struggles this season, Jorginho is yet again the club's top scorer after his brace of penalties on Sunday took his tally to nine for the campaign.

Lukaku was brought in to nudge the Italy midfielder off the top of that chart, but injury and Covid-19 have kept him on the sidelines for much of the first half of the season.

"Hopefully it will not be Jorginho at the end of the season as our top scorer!" Tuchel said in October. "We like him a lot and it is no offence to him, but we want our main guys to score regularly, hopefully, we can provide and create chances for them."

Thomas Tuchel Chelsea 2021-22
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Both creating and finishing chances has been difficult for Chelsea during their run of just three wins in their last eight league matches, and in the first half against Villa they again lacked potency in attack.

Christian Pulisic, yet again being utilised as a false nine, was largely anonymous through the opening 45 minutes, with the United States star unable to offer the outlet that Tuchel's possession-based side require from their attacking focal point.

At the other end, Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins caused Chelsea's defence plenty of problems with their pace and movement, and Villa's lead was deserved, if not a little fortunate, when Reece James flicked a header into his own goal from Matt Targett's cross.

Jorginho equalised fromt the spot before the break after Callum Hudson-Odoi was fouled by Matty Cash, but it was not until Lukaku was introduced that Chelsea managed to sustain an attacking threat.

His return could not come soon enough, with the likes of Wolves, Everton and Manchester United having blunted the Blues with low blocks in recent weeks, and it was clear from his goal how his presence will allow Chelsea to play differently.

Hudson-Odoi's in-swinging cross would not have been anywhere near as dangerous were Pulisic still playing up front, but Lukaku's physicality and intelligence of movement left Tyrone Mings flat-footed, with the striker's header his first league goal since Chelsea beat Villa on September 11.

After spending six weeks on the sidelines with an ankle injury, it was hoped that Lukaku would have been starting regularly by now, but a positive Covid-19 diagnosis has further stalled his second stint in west London.

The 28-year-old has been using his home gym to remain in good condition during his week of self-isolation, and the work he has been doing could be seen with his final action of the game, as he burst away from the Villa defence before being brought down by Ezri Konsa for the game-sealing spot-kick.

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It was a run that harked back to Lukaku's time at Inter, and one that he described as his "preferred action" to Sky Sports post-match. Whether it will be one that he can repeat given Chelsea's general style remains to be seen, though there is no doubt that he can be a difference-maker in the second half of the season.

Regarded as a leader in the dressing room due to his stature within the game and his ability to speak six languages, Lukaku's return to the fold will give anyone inside the club who was doubting Chelsea's title credentials a timely boost.

If he can stay fit, then the title race has a real chance of remaining a three-horse affair.