How Romelu Lukaku, football’s nearly man, became Jose Mourinho’s ideal signing

The Belgian is poised to join Rome, two years on from his £97m move to Stamford Bridge

Richard Jolly
Senior football correspondent
Thursday 31 August 2023 10:24 BST
Romelu Lukaku arrives in Rome to link up with Jose Mourinho and the Giallorossi
Romelu Lukaku arrives in Rome to link up with Jose Mourinho and the Giallorossi (AP)

Like Wolfgang Wolf managing Wolfsburg or Arsene Wenger taking charge of Arsenal, perhaps Romelu Lukaku’s imminent arrival in Rome is striking a blow for nominative determinism in football. When Roma secure his services on a year’s loan, it may seem a triumph for the Giallorossi’s negotiating skills and an extension to the strange on-off relationship between Lukaku and Jose Mourinho.

Yet for Lukaku and Chelsea, trapped in a loveless marriage during which neither has been able to formalise a lasting parting of the ways, it represents a failure on both fronts. Even as Chelsea have sold a host of players this summer, it is ever likelier that they will not recoup a transfer fee for a man who cost them a then club record £97m. Chelsea, it feels, have been doubly culpable in the last two summers, first being too generous and too willing to loan him out to Inter for a relatively small sum last year and then overpricing him 12 months on, when cash-strapped Italian clubs were unlikely to pay £40m and Lukaku had little interest in moving to Saudi Arabia. It was a sign he still has footballing ambitions.

The wrong ones, perhaps. Lukaku’s flirtation with Juventus cost him a chance of a return to Inter; he has often had the feel of an outsider everywhere he has been but there was a sense of belonging among the Nerazzurri as a catalyst in their first Scudetto in 11 years. A willingness to join their enemies led Javier Zanetti, whose loyalty to Inter was established over 858 appearances, to accuse him of betrayal.

So Roma it is, as the short-term replacement for Tammy Abraham, whose cruciate ligament injury will sideline him for much of the season. The odd, interconnected history of the supposed new Didier Drogbas continues: neither Lukaku nor Abraham has actually assumed the Ivorian’s totemic role at Stamford Bridge, the destiny that seemed to await each when he debuted at 18.

When Lukaku makes his Roma bow, they will have played for a combined total of seven other clubs on loan when owned by Chelsea. Each has missed a decisive penalty in a Super Cup; Lukaku at least scored in a Club World Cup final but Abraham, with 18 goals in a breakthrough season under Frank Lampard, has arguably had the better Chelsea career. Tellingly, Mauricio Pochettino seemed to have little interest in resurrecting Lukaku’s.

Meanwhile, he appears to be a curiously unfulfilled figure. A move to Mourinho’s United was supposed to be the end to his days as a wanderer, rendering him an iconic figure for an elite club. So, four years later, was his return to Chelsea. And, had he gone back to Inter this year, that could have been his mantle. Instead, he is forever a staple of transfer market discussion.

And a player with a remarkable 355 goals by the age of 30 – 280 in club football, 75 for his country – now feels defined by those he didn’t score: the four misses in 45 minutes by a semi-fit Lukaku as Croatia held on for a stalemate that brought Belgium’s Golden Generation to an undignified end, the late header that Ederson somehow saved in the Champions League final.

A mural by street artist ‘Anonimo74’ depicts Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku
A mural by street artist ‘Anonimo74’ depicts Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku (EPA)

It may be harsh or recency bias: time can supply more context. For now, however, Lukaku can be portrayed as a nearly man, a player who has lost more finals than he has won, one who has a solitary league title since leaving Anderlecht as a teenager, who, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic – another sizeable Mourinho striker – is among the most prolific forwards never to win the Champions League.

Strikers can require a selfish streak but Lukaku may end up defined by individual exploits: he could join Cristiano Ronaldo, Ali Daei and Lionel Messi in the select group who score a century of international goals.

At club level, meanwhile, Chelsea may deem him Thomas Tuchel’s folly, the most damaging part of their Champions League-winning manager’s legacy, his huge salary making him the hardest player to shift.

For Roma, where the wider perception of Mourinho is a manager in decline, raging against the brightest of lights dying out, Lukaku might be a boost to the ego. Lukaku spent some of an injury-hit affected 2022-23 on the bench but in his previous campaign in Serie A, two years earlier, he was the division’s best player.

Romelu Lukaku speaks with Jose Mourinho during their time together at Manchester United
Romelu Lukaku speaks with Jose Mourinho during their time together at Manchester United (Getty Images)

In his first spell at Inter, he delivered 23 and 24 league goals in two seasons, adding 11 assists in the second. Even last year, he was directly involved in a goal every 100 minutes in Serie A. For Roma, whose tally of 50 Serie A goals was both meagre and their lowest in 26 years, he shapes up as their ideal acquisition. For them, Lukaku could be forgiven for a few big-game misses in exchange for a consistent return in lesser matches.

There is something poignant in Mourinho bringing together another band of thirty-somethings, chasing figures from his past as he bids to recreate it. The previous times he and Lukaku linked up, it was with more of a promise of greatness and, while the Belgian scored 25 goals in their first year together at Old Trafford, their finest exploits came without the other. For now, though, Lukaku is a coup for Mourinho and Roma offer an escape from Chelsea for him.

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