Juventus-Chelsea will be a special match for Romelu Lukaku, who was close to joining the Bianconeri in 2019 and has always struggled against them, writes Kaustubh Pandey.
Football often operates in timelines. History can change quickly, on the pitch and in the market and the fate of players and clubs sometimes depends on details that are out of their control, offering multiple intriguing sub-plots.
Talking of subplots, Chelsea str Romelu Lukaku could’ve possibly been at Juventus today if certain things had gone the right way some years ago. A swap deal involving him and Paulo Dybala was ready to be finalised if only the Argentinean hadn’t rejected a move to Old Trafford. It was during the summer of 2019 and only a few weeks later, the Belgian would complete an €80m move to Antonio Conte’s Inter.
The Old Lady were desperate for a striker that summer and eventually failed to sign Mauro Icardi too, as Dybala stayed on and starred. Had Lukaku had joined Juventus instead of Inter, the butterfly effect would’ve changed everything. Inter may not have won Serie A in 2020-21 and the striker wouldn’t have returned to Stamford Bridge. It might be far-fetched thinking, but that is how the butterfly effect works.
But here we are, living in this strange world, all set to see Lukaku head to Turin with Thomas Tuchel’s Blues in the Champions League on Wednesday. The Belgian is now a much better player than Juve might have got in 2019. Under Conte, he became adept at exploiting the channels and half-spaces and everything revolved around his abilities, unlike what happened at Manchester United.
More than anything, Lukaku heads to Turin in an attempt to score his second goal against the Bianconeri. While the 28-year-old didn’t have an exceptional record against the Bianconeri at Inter, he became a cult figure for their fierce rivals in a historic season for the Nerazzurri. Even at Manchester United, the striker did play against Juventus but failed to score even then.
But that was then and this is now. Juventus aren’t the same force as when they beat Manchester United in the Champions League group stage in 2018, nor the same team that dominated Italian football over the last decade. Massimiliano Allegri’s side has yet to keep a single clean sheet in the league and recently conceded twice against Sampdoria and Spezia, showing evident weakness in the defensive phase.
The Old Lady remains in an ever-present transition and has returned to the man they sacked in 2019.
Amidst all that uncertainty, Allegri hasn’t found his core group of players yet. There have been constant formation changes and that has only increased the uncertainty at the club. The last two wins have been encouraging, but the Old Lady will be without Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata against the Blues. Not scoring goals and conceding too many will be a massive problem for a team that can’t keep clean sheets.
Tuchel’s Chelsea thrive on space finding. Lukaku defines that with his movement in the channels and his ability to exploit spaces brilliantly. He has already shown that in the Premier League, as he also helps the players around him get more space to operate in. While the defeat to Manchester City wasn’t an accurate representation of Tuchel and Lukaku and wasn’t a great reflection of space manipulation, Juve’s shaky backline and a midfield pivot will allow Chelsea more space to use.
Lukaku has been on the winning side only once against the Bianconeri, while playing against them six times. He has just one goal and that came in his last meeting against them. He also faced Juventus’ defensive partnership (Leo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini) during the Euros and everybody remembers how it ended up.
Whether Inter fans will enjoy seeing one of their former stars putting one over Juve remains to be seen, but the Belgian can undoubtedly make it. He’s grown in stature and ability and the Allianz Stadium clash could be a perfect chance for him to beat the Old Lady at a former hunting ground, proving that he can be decisive also in big games.