Romelu Lukaku brought Chelsea back to the Premier League title race, says Jamie Redknapp, after the striker’s big impact in the win over Aston Villa.
The Belgian – who hasn’t played any of Chelsea’s last 11 league games since the start due to injury and illness – was sent off at half-time with a score of 1-1. In 11 minutes he had put them in the lead with his first league goal since September. He then capped off a captivating performance with a driving run to win a late penalty to finish three vital points.
With Manchester City previously winning in Boxing Day, Chelsea couldn’t afford another mistake and are now level on points with second-placed Liverpool, who have one game down, and six points behind the reigning champions. .
It is still a big task for Chelsea to return to first place after the disappointing results of recent weeks, when they failed to turn dominance into goals. However, Redknapp says that with Lukaku in shape, they’re right in the mix.
“Lukaku has single-handedly brought his team back into this title race,” said the Sky Sports expert.
“They needed something, they needed a spark and that’s exactly what it brought. In the first half they weren’t going anywhere, the manager was scratching his head thinking ‘what should I do?’.
“The obvious thing was to carry it on, because they fought so hard with Christian Pulisic in the first half as that number 9.
“Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa had mistreated Pulisic. It was too easy for them. But when Mings crashed into his goalkeeper a minute after Lukaku entered, they knew they were going to fight for the next 45 minutes. Time.
“From the minute he walked in, it made such a difference. He added that confidence. Everything started clicking.
“You could play from deep inside, you could play it from behind, he gives you that focal point and you can get it into him … he gives them something completely different.
“They looked like a completely different proposition with him up front and when they can bring their best players on the pitch – N’Golo Kante, Lukaku – Chelsea look like a much better team. And of course they are right in this title race.
“City and Liverpool are, for me, the best teams right now, but Chelsea have to hope that City can have a blip or things don’t go the right way.
“But if Chelsea want to win it, Lukaku will play an important role.”
Lukaku has been suffering from an ankle injury and then Covid-19 since October and while Tuchel was delighted with its impact, he said it “wasn’t fair” to force him back into action for a full time.
Tuchel said: “There is no doubt that he is very important. Romelu will be a key player. The last time he started for us was in October, not because of the quality or because we have doubts that we are better off without him. It is unfortunate to get hurt.
“When he was struggling to get back into the schedule we have, he took Covid. It was (45 minutes) longer than the fitness and medical department recommended for him, but we thought we could take the risk and be more offensive.”
Lukaku: We are the hunters
Chelsea led the Premier League in the early part of this season, but now they have to catch up on Manchester City. However, Lukaku says they will appreciate their role as “hunters”.
talking with Sky Sports after the victory at Villa, he also referred to his frustration at being on the sidelines.
“I think I need a performance like this today, it was difficult because every player wants to play,” he said.
“The coach has his reasons but I continued to work hard. Today it was nice to win and I’m happy with my performance.
“Now we are the hunters: we have to chase every game and we have to treat every game as a final now.”
Tuchel: It’s a big win, but he asks “it’s not fair” to the team affected by COVID
Thomas Tuchel praised Lukaku’s performance after the match, but says it wasn’t ideal for him to play, with the striker just recovering from COVID.
Tuchel also pointed out how his team has been stretched and his players have remained vulnerable to injuries due to the current combination of many games and illnesses in the field, pointing to the problems Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kante suffered during the match.
“It’s a great win. The reaction was very, very good and the mentality was great,” he said. “We have not conceded chances and we have created many. Work done, but we are worried. We have another injury. We are playing against a team with no commitments in the national team. At a certain point he will take us.
“It’s not fair today. Him [Lukaku] it did a great performance, it was very useful, but it’s not fair. He is not ready for it, even if he wants to.
“We’ve all been in bed for 10 days with the flu. I didn’t play two days after a game at Villa Park, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We just entered the players but we don’t know [what the impact is]. Today was a turning point. I’m super impressed with the guys but I’m super worried.
“It is tough, we are struggling, we are pressing our players. It is very difficult to expect this. I have the utmost respect for what the players have done today. It is a fantastic result and the effort has been exceptional.
“We make changes because of injuries. We don’t change anymore for tactical reasons. We took the risk of starting Callum Hudson-Odoi, so he can share the minutes with Lukaku but Kante got injured again, Silva got injured.
“We only have three [subs]. It has backfired. Hudson-Odoi was great today, one of his best performances since I’ve been here. However, we were also in doubt if he could play once, but he ends up playing 90 minutes because he needs it. “
Analysis: Lukaku’s return gives Chelsea hope
Peter Smith of Sky Sport:
“Lukaku’s impact at Villa was a reminder of his debut against Arsenal, bringing quality to the finish of an all too often expensive attack from Chelsea, and pace and power to the forefront.
His header was his first Premier League goal since September, when Chelsea won five of the seven league games he started this season.
“Chelsea only lost points to Liverpool and Manchester City during that run, and they meet those teams again in two consecutive league games in early January. It will be the defining moment in Chelsea’s title challenge.
“With Lukaku in form and finding his form before those blockbusters, Chelsea can still believe it.”
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