“I really hope in the depths of my heart to return to Inter, not at the end of my career, but at a still good level to hopefully win more.”
Romelu Lukaku has his wish granted, perhaps sooner than even he expected.
It was an explosive 29-minute interview with Sky in Italy recorded last December which marked the beginning of the end of his Chelsea love affair.
It took a club transfer record to re-sign the striker for £97.5m, with Lukaku returning to Stamford Bridge 10 years after he first joined.
The 29-year-old, who initially moved to Chelsea when he was 18 from Anderlecht in 2011, signed a five-year deal that saw him become the highest-paid player at the club, earning £200,000 per week after tax.
But there was another sense of deja-vu as Inter Milan completed a loan deal for his return to the San Siro on Wednesday.
What Premier League legacy is there to show for a striker on whom a record £285.6m in total fees have been lavished so far in his career?
The sense of incompletion will still endure at the sharp end of English football when it comes to the bustling centre-forward.
He moved from Chelsea to Everton for a club-record fee of £28m in July 2014 following a successful loan spell. Three years later, he joined Manchester United for £75m on a five-year contract that would only have expired this summer.
Having restored his reputation as one of Europe’s top strikers at Inter, he returned to Chelsea for £97.5m less than 12 months ago.
For over £200m, and two of the top-five fees paid by clubs in the history of English football, Lukaku has scored 121 goals in the Premier League – 19th on the all-time list.
For Liverpool’s new recruit Darwin Nunez and the euphoria surrounding Erling Haaland’s arrival at Manchester City, Lukaku’s travails is a cautionary tale.
The Belgian is heading back to Italy, and the comfort of familiar surroundings in Milan. He wants to feel loved, playing in a system which suits his style. A 30 per cent pay cut wouldn’t dissuade him.
Under Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, this was never a natural fit. It begs the question, why did he leave Inter in the first place? Lukaku admitted the handling of his Serie A exit was not something he could fully control.
“I was a big investment for Inter but we did great things together,” he said in that interview to Sky Italy.
“So the second year after we won the Scudetto, I went to speak with club chiefs and asked for a new contract. I did it because I told myself I’m 28 years old, my family feels great in Milan, I still have my flat there, my mother and my son could come and live there and we would all feel comfortable.
“But they didn’t want to extend my contract, the possibility wasn’t there. It was tough for me to accept, because in my head I told myself that I would be able to do a few more years in Milan.
“The fact that they didn’t try to make me sign a new contract bothered me a bit, it hurt me even. If Inter offered me a new contract, I would have stayed 100 per cent. That goes without saying.”
A fluttering of his eyelids, irked by a lack of closure, Tuchel didn’t take kindly to Chelsea’s record signing revealing he only left Inter when his request for a new contract was rejected last summer, describing the comments as “not helpful” as they “bring noise that we don’t need”, but claimed the striker looked far from unsettled.
Lukaku was subsequently dropped for Chelsea’s home encounter with Liverpool but was back starting just three days later in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Tottenham.
His comments did, however, spark plenty of debate in the Sky Sports studio as Graeme Souness claimed the forward had “more than crossed the line” with his conduct.
“You’re trying to understand how a player has got to a stage where he’s come out with such a ridiculous and damaging statement,” said Souness.
“We’ve all played with players who need to be training every day and playing every week to get the best out of them. Lukaku is a powerful man, and he’s been used sparingly by the manager.
“He’s physically big and strong and has to be playing games all the time to be scoring goals. Wayne Rooney, I imagine, had to be like that to get the very best out of him. [Lukaku] was frustrated at not coming back and going straight into the team and has come up with the nonsense he’s said.
“It was totally disrespectful. He’s 29 years old not 19 and he should know better. This damages the football club enormously. It’s like walking into a dressing room and telling the other guys, ‘I don’t want to be with you anymore’.
“It damages the manager, and he should say, ‘If you don’t fancy it here, there’s the door. On you go’. The first thing I’d do if I was Tuchel is I’d tell Lukaku that he needs to apologise. He needs to stand in front of everyone in the dressing room and apologise unreservedly.
“If he’s not prepared to come to me as the manager, I’d come to him and have an honest conversation over whether he really meant it or whether it was a mistake. If he’s not apologised, then he’s done the right thing [in leaving him out].
“Tuchel has put a marker down and Lukaku has more than crossed the line. He has to apologise to his team-mates. It was so offside, it beggars belief.”
Gary Neville believed an apology wasn’t necessary if Lukaku had told the truth – but he needed to work hard to win back the trust of his manager and fans in what is now “rather than a love story, a transactional relationship.”
That relationship has reached an acrimonious end. Despite being brought in from the cold, matters didn’t significantly improve.
Against Crystal Palace in February, Lukaku set a new Premier League record for the fewest touches from a player who has played a full 90 minutes since statistics started being recorded by Opta in the 2003-04 season.
The Belgium international only managed seven touches in the 1-0 victory at Selhurst Park – and one of those was from kick-off. Tuchel said it was “not the time to laugh”.
Asked how he could get Lukaku to touch the ball more often, the Chelsea boss said: “What can I do? I don’t know. We have to deal with it.
“The data is out there and the data speaks a certain language. He was not involved in our game, it’s sometimes like this with strikers. If they struggle a bit with self-confidence, to find the space and to get involved against a good defensive side, it can be like this.
“It’s not what we want or Romelu wants, but it’s also not the time to laugh about him and make jokes about him. He’s in the spotlight but we will protect him.”
Lukaku would score just three more Premier League goals for Chelsea – two of which came in the same game against Wolves. Offered the opportunity to single out the player for special praise, to generate confidence, Tuchel provided a lukewarm response.
“Okay, it was a good performance, but this is for sure not the moment to talk about individuals and praise players,” he said after Wolves snatched a dramatic late draw in early May. “We do this as a team, and we lost crucial points. This is not the moment to praise individuals.”
Lukaku’s comments to Sky Italy came from a dented ego. Within them, he even expressed that one of the reasons why he made the return to the Premier League was due to his failure to win any silverware.
“The fact that I hadn’t won anything in England in eight years there bothered me a lot,” he said.
This ego was further bruised when Tuchel found another way of winning without him, as Lukaku was frustrated at not immediately coming back into Chelsea’s starting XI after an injury lay-off.
Kai Havertz was more regularly utilised in a false number nine position, with the likes of Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner preferred to him in a more fluid forward line. It hastened an unexpected end given the blistering start Lukaku made.
Seven goals in his opening six games for club and country pointed towards a focal point that could spearhead Chelsea to their first Premier League triumph since 2017. He was viewed in some quarters as the “missing piece of the jigsaw” under Tuchel.
Sky Sports senior football journalist Peter Smith tipped Chelsea for the Premier League title at the start of last season, writing: “Only six teams had a lower shot conversion rate than Chelsea in the Premier League last season and three of those sides were relegated. Only four sides had a poorer return on their Expected Goals figure.
“But Chelsea supporters will believe they have their new star striker now. Or should that be their old one? At 28, they are getting a Lukaku in his pomp – and, although he will play it down, he has a point to prove.”
His final goal for Chelsea summed up his second spell, scoring with his sixth attempt – and first on target – in a comfortable victory away at Leeds. The relief was palpable for the player, scoring the third goal in a 3-0 win, but it had been hard work.
Fittingly, his final act in a Chelsea shirt was to be replaced by Havertz in a 1-1 draw against Leicester having endured 78 frustrating minutes. Tuchel sought fresh legs, and now Lukaku is being phased out again.
Todd Boehly has acted decisively by making a statement early into his ownership: full application and dedication to the team is one of the club’s non-negotiables.
His own position strengthened, Tuchel can focus on rebuilding his squad. Raheem Sterling, Raphinha, Ousmane Dembele, Jules Kounde, Matthijs de Ligt, Nathan Ake and Milan Skriniar are all targets.
Chelsea enter a new era and are cutting their losses on a striker revered around Europe but who departs knowing a sense of unfinished business still lingers.
Analysis: Where did it go wrong for Lukaku at Chelsea?
Eddie Newton, a former Chelsea assistant manager across three spells, told Sky Sports:
“Lukaku is a player who always likes to be facing the goal, not playing with his back to it. With his power and his pace, he’s very difficult to stop when he’s in his flow.
“But when he’s playing with his back to goal, it’s never been the best part of his game. The way Chelsea play, they need their No 9 to be the focal point where they play it into him and he can set for them to play in behind. Especially when you’re playing against a low block.
“Chelsea plays teams who like to sit back a lot, which makes the role of the No 9 very important in terms of his ability to play with his back to goal, to bring others into play.
“It’s down to Lukaku to then score goals in the second and third phases but it’s why I don’t think it’s happened for Lukaku back at Chelsea.”
Who takes responsibility?
“It’s got to be a combination of the player and the coaching staff. This is the really important thing about recruitment. You can’t deny that Lukaku is a fantastic, top player as he’s scored goals on the international scene and scored many goals in top leagues.
“Chelsea play a certain brand of football which they haven’t wanted to come out of. Maybe getting a striker who isn’t as big a name as Lukaku but that fits their system is perhaps a better way of going about their recruitment.
“Antonio Conte got the best out of Lukaku. Romantically, you look at it and wanted it to work as he loves and supports Chelsea.
“Coming back here, you thought he’d had the experience he needed at other clubs and in other countries and you felt he was now ready to take on the mantle of being Chelsea’s No 9 by winning loads of trophies but unfortunately it didn’t materialise.”
Does Lukaku need to build bridges with Inter fans?
Guardian football writer and Italian football expert Nicky Bandini told Sky Sports:
“Inter need to cut back this summer – they need to save money rather than spend it but there was a sense they could structure a well-priced deal on loan rather than a big fee up front.
“Lukaku has been talking this up ever since that interview back in December, and for him the idea of going back to Inter where he was the man, he was adored and where he won a league title being the centre of the universe. For him, that’s very appealing.
“There was certainly some bitterness among some Inter fans when he left. One of his murals outside the San Siro was vandalised as soon as he left and there were banners hung up after the interview in December saying, ‘It doesn’t matter who runs away in the rain, it matters who stays in the storm. Bye Romelu.’
“There was certainly some anger towards him from the ultra groups in particular, but everything I’m seeing among the fan leaders online is that there will be a pretty quick reconciliation – and crucially if he scores goals like he did before.
“Seeing him inspire Inter Milan back to the top of Serie A having been toppled by their neighbours AC Milan would be enough to build those bridges pretty quickly.”
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