Romelu Lukaku’s final kick of his first spell at Chelsea came in a Super Cup.
On August 30, 2013, the Belgian – then 20, still young, albeit one with the physical stature of a player much further on in his career – missed the decisive penalty as Chelsea became the first team to lose successive Super Cup fixtures, going down in a shoot-out to Bayern Munich.
Not long after that game, Lukaku headed to Everton, initially on a loan deal before he made a permanent move to Goodison Park a year later. A return to Chelsea, however, has always seemed a possibility for the striker who stormed onto the scene with Anderlecht in his teens.
Whereas a Super Cup marked the end of his first spell in London, Wednesday’s meeting with Villarreal showed just why the Blues are set to break their transfer record to sign the 28-year-old, who arrives back at the club a Serie A winner and one of Europe’s leading forwards.
This time, Lukaku watched on from afar as Chelsea, defeated on penalties by Liverpool in the 2019 edition, clinched victory in the shoot-out after a 1-1 draw in Belfast – Kepa Arrizabalaga coming on to be the hero.
ROM THE REMEDY
It seems wrong to be too critical of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, given their remarkable success in his short time at the club. They went unbeaten in their first 14 games under the German, secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and, of course, won the Champions League.
Yet from Tuchel’s appointment until the end of last season, Chelsea scored only 38 goals in all competitions.
The chances were being created – it would be difficult for players such as Mason Mount, who crafted the second-most opportunities in the Premier League last season, Hakim Ziyech, who opened the scoring in Belfast before going off injured, Christian Pulisic and Champions League final goalscorer Kai Havertz not to fashion their fair share.
Much was made of Timo Werner’s first season at the club too, as the former RB Leipzig forward fluffed his lines time after time. He finished with six league goals but from 79 attempts, registering a shot conversion rate of just 7.59 per cent, while he only netted five of the 23 ‘big’ chances, as defined by Opta, that came his way.
Up until the 27th minute at Windsor Park, when Ziyech tucked in from Havertz’s centre, it was all Chelsea, but the same issues which had plagued their frontline last season were present once more.
In the sixth minute, Marcos Alonso’s brilliant cross caught Werner on his heels. It would have been a gift for Lukaku. Werner forced a great save from the resulting corner, though that was the only shot he managed in his 65 minutes on the field.
More issues came after Ziyech’s opener, as Chelsea (who had 67.9 per cent possession before the break) failed to add to their lead and let Villarreal – who levelled through Gerard Moreno – claim control.
Lukaku’s imminent arrival, however, should ensure this profligacy, demonstrated again by Pulisic’s 100th-minute miss from close range, is not repeated throughout the coming campaign.
Chelsea ended the game against Villarreal with 20 attempts, of which seven were on target. Had Lukaku’s signing come in time, it is hard to imagine penalties would have been required at all to decide the outcome.
3 – For a third year in a row, the UEFA Super Cup has been won by a team managed by a German coach; Jürgen Klopp with Liverpool in 2019, Hansi Flick with FC Bayern in 2020 and Thomas Tuchel with Chelsea in 2021. Triple. pic.twitter.com/sS52OUlgr0
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) August 11, 2021
KEPA THE HERO
While Chelsea’s forwards toiled, it was forgotten man Kepa who came on to be the difference.
In the 119th minute, Edouard Mendy made way for the former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper – just over 17 minutes after that change, Kepa dived low to his right to keep out Raul Albiol’s weak effort and ensure the Champions League holders have now lifted the Super Cup in eight of the past nine seasons.
It was a brave call by Tuchel, who follows in the footsteps of compatriots Jurgen Klopp and Hansi Flick in winning the Super Cup – German coaches having triumphed in the last three editions.
With Lukaku soon to be back on board, it could – and perhaps should – be the first trophy of many for the Blues this term.
For now, though, this was just a nice story for Kepa, the keeper who once refused to be taken off in a cup final had come on late to help decide the outcome in his team’s favour.