To Mauricio Pochettino, there was no reclamation project as far as Romelu Lukaku was concerned. A fresh start for Chelsea’s €115million striker did not figure in the plans of their new head coach.
“I think it is obvious,” Pochettino said. “I think we can repeat this. It is obvious what is going on with him.”
For a time it certainly looked that way, but are things ever really that straightforward with Lukaku? This has been another summer of Romfusion and great unexpectations. The answer Pochettino thought was “obvious” presumably rested on the assumption Chelsea and Inter Milan would find a solution for Lukaku to move back to San Siro on a permanent basis.
“He loves the shirt he wears,” Inter’s chief executive, Giuseppe Marotta, claimed towards the end of last season. Selling Andre Onana, a playmaker in gloves, to Manchester United for €55million (£47.5m; $60.7m) was part of a strategy to raise the money needed to turn Lukaku’s 2022-23 loan into a permanent signing back at the club he left for Chelsea in 2021. Inter elected not to extend the contract of veteran striker Edin Dzeko, whose representatives concluded a free transfer to local side Fenerbache while he prepared for June’s Champions League final against Manchester City in Istanbul. It was a sign of their intent.
Although Inter’s coach, Simone Inzaghi, showed a preference for Dzeko in big games — the Bosnian started the Coppa Italia final, the Super Cup, the Milan derbies in the league and every Champions League knockout tie — the future at Inter looked like a consolidated reunion of LuLa (the Lukaku-Lautaro Martinez partnership), which is synonymous with the club’s most recent Scudetto in 2020. During the run-in this spring, as Inter won seven of their last eight league games and the pair combined for 15 goals and assists each, it was like old times.
“I fought hard, as did the club’s executive team, to bring him back last year and we’d like to do the same this year,” Inzaghi announced in his first press conference this season.
When Inter flew to Japan for their summer tour, however, Lukaku was not on the plane. A derisory bid of around €30million had been turned down by Chelsea. Marotta claimed Lukaku’s parent club couldn’t expect “such big numbers” from him when “an offer of something in the region of €50m arrived from (Saudi) Arabia” — an inflated fee in his opinion. Inter’s opening proposal was just the start and they weren’t finished, confident Lukaku’s personal preference strengthened their position. The player side of the negotiation was supposed to be the easy part.
But Inter were then ghosted and learned during the radio silence that Juventus had been encouraged enough to rival them in the bidding for Lukaku.
A week went by, according to Il Corriere della Sera, and when Lukaku did eventually call Inter sporting director Pier Ausilio back, he reportedly couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Over the course of a 30-second conversation — shall we say monologue? — Ausilio told him he could forget playing for the club again. Inter were, spectacularly, out.
“I was hurt, to tell the truth,” Lukaku’s strike partner Martinez said. “I also tried calling him in those chaotic days. He never picked up. It was the same story with my team-mates. After all we’ve been through over the years, all the things we’ve experienced, I was disappointed. It’s his choice. I wish him the best.”
The Inter ultras from San Siro’s Curva Nord were not so charitable. When Lukaku returned last summer, the club asked their fans to refrain from going to the airport to greet him. Although they had yet to forgive him for leaving in the first place. “Players who don’t abandon ship in the storm are the ones who matter to us, not those who flee in the rain” was the banner left outside San Siro when he made his record move back to Chelsea, where he had a previous spell from 2011-14, a year earlier.
Over the past 12 months though, the wound crusted over and some healing began with San Siro’s general public. But the ultras never forgot and when the news broke of Lukaku blue-ticking Ausilio, an unsparing communique was only a matter of time.
“He who betrays you will do so again,” it read. “Not out of enjoyment, but because it is in their nature. That’s right, Romelu, because you betrayed us all, us lot who defended you to the hilt when times were hard and the fans of the team pursuing you (Juventus) mocked you. You repay us with a stab in the back that Brutus would be proud of.
“You kissed a badge which, to us, is our life and now, vile mercenary that you are, you go and sell yourself to the highest bidder. Being a man comes before being a champion. And you aren’t one.”
By this time, Lukaku had returned to London to report for pre-season training with Chelsea’s bomb squad, limiting himself to cryptic posts on Instagram such as: “When that hate don’t work they start telling lies.”
Just as Inter needed to sell Lukaku two years ago to ease the immense financial duress on the club’s accounts, perhaps this time around they got cold feet themselves and thought twice about buying him back in a mini-auction that incrementally pushed up the price.
Until April, Inter did not seem at all sold on the idea of paying up for Lukaku. He scored on his ‘second debut’ for the club against Lecce last August and then failed to find the net from open play again for eight months in the league. Injuries hampered him again, as they had done in his year back at Chelsea, when his fitness restricted his game time as much as his incompatibility with head coach Thomas Tuchel.
Reviewing his season on U.S. TV station CBS after the Champions League semi-finals, Lukaku admitted: “This year has been very complicated. When I got injured, we didn’t realise how tough of an injury (the soleus muscle) it was. I’m an explosive type of player, so when you do your hamstring, it’s very tough to come back, and I forced it. At the World Cup, you could see I was not sharp and then I had a relapse in January, which cost me another month and a half.”
Inzaghi couldn’t depend on him and leaned instead on Martinez and Dzeko, with Lukaku becoming a deluxe rotational piece in the final third of the campaign. No matter how many goals the Belgian scored and how many assists he laid on, the hierarchy was set. Inzaghi’s mind, when it came to the big games, was made up. Within that context, it is relatively understandable that Lukaku might give renewed consideration to his options, although Dzeko’s departure should have offered some peace of mind.
Another question was whether or not Inter still suit him. How they played at the end of the season brought the best out of Lukaku. “At the start of the year, the team tried to high press,” he said. “It’s not our biggest strength. This team won the league playing counter-attacking football.” Inter’s system now is the same as it was then under Antonio Conte, a 3-5-2, but the style is different and while Inzaghi tweaked it later last season, the fit was not exactly what it used to be two years ago.
One team who explicitly and unashamedly sit back, combining long ball and fast-break football, are Inter’s sworn enemies, Juventus.
They already tried to sign Lukaku in 2019, when Manchester United were offered Paulo Dybala in exchange. However, Dybala turned the opportunity down, and Lukaku went to Inter. Juventus had a different executive team (led by Fabio Paratici) and coach (Maurizio Sarri) at the time and, if anything, look more up Lukaku’s alley now, with Max Allegri in the dugout again, than they did then.
But Juventus? Seriously?
“No, no, no, no, no,” Lukaku said, when asked by Sky Italia’s Matteo Barzaghi whether he’d consider joining Juventus if it meant a return to Serie A in another section of that infamous interview which essentially ended his Chelsea career.
The Juventus fanbase delighted in Lukaku scoring the own goal that proved to be Sevilla’s winner in the 2019-20 Europa League final and rejoiced when he missed a point-blank headed chance to take this season’s Champions League final to extra time. Some of their ultras even racially abused him on his most recent visit to Turin’s Allianz Stadium in April.
But this is a weird summer in which Juan Cuadrado, the player who sparked a brawl upon confronting Lukaku in April’s Coppa Italia semi-finals, has left Juventus for Inter after eight years in black and white.
“I haven’t thought about how the fans would react to Lukaku’s arrival,” Juventus’ new ‘football director’ Cristiano Giuntoli said at his unveiling.
Giuntoli, the architect of Napoli’s first league title-winning team in 33 years, insisted “we’re sounding the market out, talking to lots of clubs and lots of players, but we’re at the intelligence gathering stage”. Juventus’ one-year ban from UEFA’s competitions means they have to make major cuts, which entails letting a few high rollers off the wage bill, such as Angel Di Maria, and selling some others. It’s why one of the options Chelsea have been presented with this summer is the chance to sign their Dusan Vlahovic for cash plus Lukaku in part-exchange.
Considering Juventus need a deal involving Vlahovic to be worth around €55million in order to not make a loss on a player billed as the future of their attack on his arrival from Fiorentina only 18 months ago, it’s a tough sell — and tougher still considering how lukewarm Chelsea have been towards the idea of signing a talented centre-forward whose time at Juventus has, in part, been blighted by (Allegri’s tactics and) niggling groin problems.
In Europe, the transfer window closes in less than a month. In Saudi Arabia, it closes on September 20. And so the Rom-com rolls on, without the “obvious” outcome Pochettino envisaged.
Who will have the last laugh, and whether there’s a funny side at all, remains to be seen.
(Top photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images)