Rafa Benitez perfectly summed up the bind Chelsea fans find themselves in with his so-called ‘rant’ after last week’s FA Cup win against Middlesbrough. He asked the fans to stop booing and concentrate on supporting the team, and assured them he would be leaving the club whatever happened in the summer.
The problem for Chelsea fans—at least that vocal minority who have made clear their feelings on the subject—is that they want Benitez to do badly so he doesn’t get the job full-time; but not so badly that Chelsea drop out of the top four and miss out on the Champions League next season.
The dilemma is also one that has to be considered by a 19-year-old striker who watched Chelsea’s Premier League win over West Brom with some interest: Romelu Lukaku is a Chelsea player, currently on loan at WBA, and has scored 12 goals for the side this season. His future, at least for next season, depends on if Chelsea qualifies for the Champions League.
Chelsea have made Radamel Falcao their top target for next summer, but without the Champions League, would not stand a chance of getting him, especially as his current team, Atletico Madrid, look poised to be in the competition next season anyway. It was a similar situation with Eden Hazard last year: he waited until after the Champions League final to commit to Chelsea, otherwise he would have joined Spurs to play in the elite tournament this year.
And so if Chelsea does end up in the Europa League next season, and miss out on Falcao, who will they look for? Well, probably a player already on their books who has impressed in the Premier League this season. WBA coach Steve Clarke, a former Chelsea defender and assistant coach, said this week that he hopes Lukaku extends his loan for another year: “If Chelsea want to leave him out for another season somewhere, I think we would have a strong chance of getting him back here, but it is a discussion for the summer,” he said. “Chelsea are his parent club, he is their player and they will decide what they want to do first and foremost. Then, after that, hopefully we will get a chance to put ourselves in the hat.”
Lukaku himself told a Belgian chat show this week that he would be happy to spend another year away from Stamford Bridge, if the alternative is to be stuck on the bench like he was last season. “You can’t always have a good point in your career,” he said. “The greatest players have always had a low for a year at the age of 20, 21. Hopefully that happened for me last year.
“So if I am on loan for another year, then okay, good. That would not be a bad thing. But if I have to go back to Chelsea and they say, ‘Okay, Romelu… ‘ The final goal is to actually play there, yes. But I am realistic. Next year I am 20. And then they say, ‘Romelu, he’s a baby, he still has time…’”
Lukaku is playing a patient game, and came across impressively on the Belgian chat show when his fellow guests were two actresses. They seemed surprised by his lack of self-doubt, but conceded that asking yourself questions is a pre-requisite to good performances in their industry. For Lukaku, his job is more instinctive though he showed his dramatic side in a clip of ‘School of Lukaku’ a documentary that followed the striker when he was 16 and on a tour of Stamford Bridge. Wearing a horrendous lime-green and white tracksuit, with peaked cap upturned, Lukaku said: “Mother of God… this is the stadium! The day I play here is the only day they will see me cry back home.”
He ended up playing 12 times for Chelsea last season but has never scored for the Blues. Instead he has bagged 12 goals for the Baggies this season and it’s no wonder Clarke wants him to stay at the Hawthorns for another year.
At the moment Chelsea are in fourth place and five points clear of Arsenal: but they have quite a tough run-in that includes games against Manchester United, Spurs, Liverpool and Everton. Lukaku will be following their progress with interest and, unlike the Benitez-baiters, might be hoping they do well, but not too well.