ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Romelu Lukaku had to come to the desert to end his goal drought. The 28-year-old’s first goal in a month was enough to ensure Chelsea beat Al Hilal by a score of 1-0 and book their place in Saturday’s Club World Cup final against Brazilian side Palmeiras.
Wednesday’s opponents here in Abu Dhabi could hardly have made it any easier for him: defender Yasser Al-Shahrani headed Kai Havertz’s improvised 32nd-minute cross straight to Lukaku in a central position six yards out and the Belgium international steered home a low finish for his ninth goal of the season. Yet it was reward for a performance that, while not among his best, possessed enough flashes of purpose to suggest this can be a foundation from which he can start to deliver on the club’s €115 million summer investment.
– ESPN+ viewers’ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
There have been too many false dawns since that interview with Sky Italia in December, and critics would point to one or two heavy touches, a failure to anticipate one cross and a complete air-kick at the near post when presented with an inviting cross by Cesar Azpilicueta. However, Lukaku still looked livelier at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium than he has done in several weeks, at the heart of a front three producing dangerous moments in tandem with Havertz pressing and probing alongside Hakim Ziyech’s innovation in possession.
Manager Thomas Tuchel dealt adeptly with the initial fallout from an unsanctioned interview in which Lukaku talked openly about his unhappiness and a desire to return to Inter Milan one day in the near future, but every time the forward looks disinterested, fears are raised about the sincerity of his apology and subsequent recommitment to the cause. In that context, this outing should be viewed as a positive step but Lukaku will need to build on this, as will Chelsea, when they aim to win the one trophy missing from owner Roman Abramovich’s 19-year association with the club this weekend.
“We are very happy that Romelu scored,” said first-team coach Zsolt Low, speaking in place of Tuchel, who continues to self-isolate in London following a positive COVID-19 test. “He fought very hard and gave everything in the last game, that’s why we give him the chance all the time, game to game. There was a little bit of luck to score the goal today. We are very happy and we hope that he continues and scores again in the final.”
There were, officially, around 1,500 Chelsea fans in among a crowd of 19,175, which gave this 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 from 3,400 miles away at Chelsea’s Cobham training base.
Al Hilal, led by Portuguese boss Leonardo Jardim, who until recently was linked with some of the top jobs in European football, made this a much closer contest than many anticipated. Chelsea were indebted to goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to preserve their lead, just as was the case against Plymouth Argyle in last weekend’s FA Cup fourth-round tie.
Earlier in the day, Edouard Mendy was applauded by the entire squad upon his arrival at the Ritz Carlton hotel in recognition of his successful Africa Cup of Nations campaign with Senegal.
Kepa could hardly have done more in the past few days to seize his chance in Mendy’s absence, saving a late penalty against Plymouth and then producing two fine stops here, the second of which required a strong left hand to palm Mohamed Kanno’s 68th-minute shot behind via the post. It would be harsh on the Athletic Club academy graduate were he to lose his place for Saturday’s showpiece.
“Kepa made a very big performance in the cup and saved the penalty and today, although the opponent does push Kepa too much, when we needed him, he was there,” Low said. “Kepa is in a very good shape for weeks. He trained and played very well. In the next days, we have to decide who plays the final. We wait also for Thomas and his opinion and the goalkeeping coaches.”
Tuchel will hope to make that decision in person as he aims to fly out in the next 48 hours, so long as he satisfies the relevant COVID regulations.
Lukaku sank to his knees at full-time and engaged in a moment of prayer before taking the congratulations of his teammates. It is clear he remains in search of the all-conquering form that made him such an unqualified success at Inter, but Abu Dhabi might yet prove the start of the road back to his best.