ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Romelu Lukaku had to come to the desert to end his goalscoring drought. The 28-year-old’s first goal in a month was enough to ensure Chelsea beat Al Hilal 1-0 and book their place in Saturday’s Club World Cup final against Brazilian club Palmeiras.
Wednesday’s opponents here in Abu Dhabi could hardly have made it easier for him: defender Yasser Al-Shahrani headed Kai Havertz’s improvised cross in the 32nd minute straight to Lukaku from a central position from six yards out and the international Belgian brought home a low finish for his ninth goal of the season. Still, it was the reward for a performance which, while not among his best, possessed enough flashes of goal to suggest it could be a base from which he could begin to make the investment. club’s €115m summer loan.
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There have been too many false auroras since this interview with Sky Italia in December, and critics pointed to a heavy touch or two, a failure to anticipate a cross and a full aerial kick to the near post when presented with an inviting cross from Cesar Azpilicueta. However, Lukaku still looked livelier at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium than he had in several weeks, at the heart of a top three producing dangerous moments in tandem with Havertz pressing and probing alongside the innovation of Hakim Ziyech in possession.
Coach Thomas Tuchel skillfully handled the initial fallout from an unauthorized interview in which Lukaku spoke openly about his displeasure and desire to return to Inter Milan someday in the near future, but whenever the attacker seems disinterested, fears are raised about the sincerity. of his apology and subsequent recommitment to the cause. In this context, this exit should be seen as a positive step, but Lukaku will have to build on this, as will Chelsea, when they aim to win the only trophy missing from owner Roman Abramovich’s 19-year association with the club. this week-end.
“We are very happy Romelu has scored,” said first-team coach Zsolt Low, speaking on behalf of Tuchel, who continues to self-isolate in London following a positive COVID-19 test. “He fought really hard and gave his all in the last game, that’s why we give him a chance all the time, game after game. There was a bit of a chance to score the goal today. We are very happy and we hope he continues and scores again in the final.”
There were, officially, around 1,500 Chelsea fans among a crowd of 19,175, giving the game the feel of an away game. It was a contest in which Tuchel was in constant communication with his staff, with Low suggesting he gave detailed instructions at half-time 3,400 miles from the Cobham training base at Chelsea.
Al Hilal, led by Portuguese boss Leonardo Jardim, who until recently have been linked with some of the top jobs in European football, have made it a much tighter contest than many expected. Chelsea were indebted to goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to hold on to their lead, just as they did against Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup fourth round tie last weekend.
Earlier today, Edouard Mendy was cheered on by the whole squad as he arrived at the Ritz Carlton hotel in recognition of his successful Africa Cup of Nations campaign with Senegal.
Kepa could hardly have done more in recent days to seize his chance in Mendy’s absence, saving a late penalty against Plymouth and then producing two fine saves here, the second of which required a strong left hand to hit Mohamed’s shot Kanno in the 68th minute. behind via post. It would be tough for the Athletic Club academy graduate to lose his place for Saturday’s showpiece.
“Kepa had a really big performance in the cup and saved the penalty and today, even though the opponent is pushing Kepa too hard, when we needed him he was there,” Low said. “Kepa has been in very good form for weeks. He has been training and playing very well. In the next few days we have to decide who will play the final. We are also waiting for Thomas and his opinion and the goalkeeper coaches.”
Tuchel hopes to make this decision in person as he aims to fly out in the next 48 hours, as long as he meets the relevant COVID regulations.
Lukaku fell to his knees full time and indulged in a moment of prayer before receiving congratulations from his teammates. It’s clear he’s still chasing the all-conquering form that made him such an unqualified success at Inter, but Abu Dhabi could yet prove the start of a return to his best.