MARTIN SAMUEL: Chelsea would have been MAD to back Romelu Lukaku over Thomas Tuchel

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There is a reason Pep Guardiola did not push Manchester City to complete the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Yes, he would have had to change the way his team played, but he accepted that. He understood Ronaldo would bring goals and was prepared to go away and reshape the side to accommodate him.

What he could not reconcile, however, was more of a personal issue. Guardiola explained that if he wanted Kevin De Bruyne to rest for a game, he would, and no argument. If he wanted De Bruyne to sit on the bench, there would be no complaints. And even if he told De Bruyne to come off at half-time, that wouldn’t be an issue.

And De Bruyne, he knew, might well be the best creative midfielder in the world. 

Pep Guardiola does not have a single player putting himself ahead of the Man City group

Pep Guardiola does not have a single player putting himself ahead of the Man City group

It was the same with all his players, Guardiola said. 

Over the years at Manchester City, he had reinforced the idea that the team ethic was all-important. There was not a single player putting himself ahead of the group. The team spirit was second to none. Every man, no matter how talented, left his ego at the door.

And then he was going to open that door and ask his squad to welcome a player who remains the epitome of the individual in a team sport — CR7. While he knew what Ronaldo would bring to Manchester City, he feared that, in the eyes of the players, signing him would make the manager a hypocrite and risk jeopardising all he had built.

Worse, Guardiola feared he would share that view. City did not pursue the deal.

Guardiola feared signing Cristiano Ronaldo may make him a hypocrite in the eyes of his players

Guardiola feared signing Cristiano Ronaldo may make him a hypocrite in the eyes of his players

So we can only hope that when it is time to pick sides over Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea identify who cares more for their club. That hasn’t always been the case. 

It doesn’t really matter if a player falls out with the manager at Stamford Bridge because a new one will be along soon enough. It’s the same at Watford. It is no surprise that, after a heavy loss to West Ham, there were stories circulating that the players were unhappy with Claudio Ranieri.

Indeed, when have the players ever been held responsible for results at Watford? And why would they show any loyalty to a manager who has months, maybe weeks, or even days left in the job if results do not improve?

The last time Watford went down, they used four managers in a single season, five if both Hayden Mullins’ stints as caretaker are included. This is not an environment that encourages personal responsibility. At Watford, players blame the coach and wait for the next appointment.

At Chelsea, too, but Roman Abramovich throws so much money at any problem that success often results despite the uncertainty.

That is what happened last season. Frank Lampard was sacked, but Abramovich can afford to bring in a coach of Thomas Tuchel’s calibre and Chelsea end up champions of Europe.

If Tuchel does not deliver as expected this season, if Lukaku does not perform for him, the coach goes and maybe his successor plays in a way the striker prefers.

Think back to Antonio Rudiger’s first-team exile. He is clearly the best defender at the club, yet could not make the team under Lampard. Then Tuchel arrived and Rudiger was a revelation. It made no sense. Do we believe that Lampard does not recognise a good defender? Of course not.

Blues owner Roman Abramovich throws so much money at any issue that success often results

Blues owner Roman Abramovich throws so much money at any issue that success often results

So Rudiger, after the initial estrangement, cannot have been playing or training in a way that would get him back in the team. Why? There was no imperative. All he had to do was sit tight, wait for Lampard’s inevitable dismissal – all managerial dismissals are inevitable at Chelsea – and try to impress the new guy.

Clubs that treat managers like cannon fodder can hardly be surprised when team spirit is the collateral damage.

So on Monday there was a meeting between Tuchel and Lukaku and it was asked what the manager could do to settle his unhappy striker. Surely, that question is the wrong way round.

What can Lukaku do for his manager, and the club, is the more logical conversation. And we know the answer, given Chelsea’s status. Put it like this – in 93 games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, Lukaku has scored one more goal than he has in 24 matches against West Ham and Bournemouth.

When Tuchel was deliberating whether he could afford to be without his striker on Sunday, maybe he factored in that Lukaku’s last goal against Liverpool came when Brendan Rodgers was manager. He’s faced them eight times since then.

Lukaku looked in fabulous nick against Aston Villa on Boxing Day, but then he often does. He’s scored nine times against them in 11 appearances, more than he’s scored against Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham across 45 games.

Thomas Tuchel may end up adrift if he fails to make a success of Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea

Thomas Tuchel may end up adrift if he fails to make a success of Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea

So a clash between Lukaku and the coach who made Chelsea champions of Europe is as much a test for the club as it is for Tuchel.

The beginning of the end for Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge was his spat with Diego Costa and Chelsea lost a good coach there. He returns on Wednesday with an invigorated Tottenham in the Carabao Cup. Chelsea’s progress to Wembley is far from assured.

Might Tuchel end up similarly adrift if he fails to make a success of the expensively acquired Lukaku? It would be crazy if true, favouring a player who prefers Serie A to a manager who has already delivered beyond all reasonable expectation.

Worth noting, too, that the club sitting 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League are the one who let their manager manage, even if that means rejecting the goalscoring genius of Ronaldo. Win again this season and Manchester City will have collected four of the last five league titles.

Guardiola is an easy man to back, but only at Chelsea would the coach who lifted the Champions League in May be uncertain of his allies.

VAR WAS NEVER THE SOLUTION IT WAS MADE OUT TO BE  

The problem for VAR is it could never meet expectations. Black and white, clear and obvious, all the definitive scenarios it was going to solve. Football isn’t like that. Football is frequently grey and subjective. 

Even an instance like Sadio Mane’s blow to Cesar Azpilicueta’s head divides opinion. Deliberate/accidental; forearm/elbow; knowing/oblivious. Take your pick. 

Many newspapers have former referees to rule on the controversial incidents across the weekend and even they rarely agree. So what chance we have consensus from the match officials and those at Stockley Park – or any cross-section of the crowd, for that matter? 

‘You get two Muslims in a room you get six opinions,’ said Baroness Warsi. She should try being around football fans.

So at Arsenal on Saturday there were two penalty calls, both of which were matters of opinion. Looked stitched on from one angle, less so from the other. And that makes the decision to call the referee to a monitor for review wholly subjective, too. Depends what the VAR thinks he’s seen.

VAR could never meet expectations - Sadio Mane's blow on Sunday has divided opinion

VAR could never meet expectations – Sadio Mane’s blow on Sunday has divided opinion

If he’s witnessed a clear penalty, he’ll suggest a second look; but what if he hasn’t? Then he doesn’t think an error has been made, the referee hasn’t given it anyway, play on. Meanwhile, at home, a million armchair officials are enraged, rightly or wrongly.

So we can tweak, we can refine, but it will never be perfect. We invested in technology but the machines are often triggered by something as unsophisticated and fallible as human opinion. And that was always VAR’s flaw.

So it isn’t failing. It was just never the solution it was made out to be. It’s better than nothing, that’s all.

NORWICH FANS DON’T UNDERSTAND THE GAME IF THEY THINK GILMOUR ISN’T TRYING 

First weekend of the season, I sat in the directors’ box at Norwich City for the game with Liverpool. In the front row were a little family, Norwich all the way. The mum was even in a smart, canary yellow trouser suit. 

Her son, however, had Chelsea winning the Champions League as the screensaver on his phone. ‘Good luck making a Norwich fan out of him,’ I thought.

And then I overheard them speak. They were rather obviously Scottish. And it dawned. Here was Billy Gilmour’s family. Explains the accent, explains the screensaver. They were guests of Delia Smith, for Billy’s Norwich debut. And, for a season at least, Norwich fans. 

There they are on Carrie Gilmour’s social media feed. Dad in a Norwich shirt, mum in a Norwich shirt, even the lad with the Chelsea screensaver wearing yellow and green. Away at Arsenal, away at Manchester City, away at Newcastle. Like proper supporters.

Anyone who believes Billy Gilmour isn't trying his hardest for Norwich doesn't know football

Anyone who believes Billy Gilmour isn’t trying his hardest for Norwich doesn’t know football 

I thought of that family when some Norwich fans took to telling Billy to ‘f*** off back to Chelsea’ this season; I remembered how invested they were in following his temporary club and how much it must now hurt to hear their son blamed for what is plainly a failing team. 

For while the locals may think Gilmour has not lived up to his billing, anyone who believes he is not trying his absolute hardest for at least three people in the main stand does not know football, or footballers or, indeed, human nature.

BACH CHANGES TUNE ON SPORT AND POLITICS  

Thomas Bach, IOC president and creep-in-chief, delivered a New Year message self-serving even by his dismal standards. 

Having helped award the 2022 Winter Games to a nation that will use them entirely for political ends, he informed the world that his organisation must be ‘beyond all political disputes’.

As a leading apologist for China’s regime, Bach is feeling the heat as the Winter Games in Beijing approach and revulsion grows.

His personal intervention in the Peng Shuai affair has greatly damaged his credibility – Bach is now seen as a stooge of the Chinese authorities, who are suspected of silencing Peng, by making her recant accusations of rape against a government official – which was already low as he sought a way back for Russia after their state-sponsored doping programme.

Thomas Bach's personal intervention in the Peng Shuai affair has damaged his credibility

Thomas Bach’s personal intervention in the Peng Shuai affair has damaged his credibility

In Beijing, there will be diplomatic boycotts and maybe sponsor boycotts too. And while it can be argued nobody cares whether politicians attend, if the IOC’s precious commercial partners begin to feel harmed it could become awkward. 

Conservative peer Lord Hayward – a former chief executive of the British Soft Drinks Association – is calling for a boycott of Olympic supporter Coca-Cola. Airbnb and Omega have also come under scrutiny.

So suddenly the man who delivered the Beijing Games wants to keep politics out of sport. Keeping Bach out would be greatly preferable.

STOKES FOR CAPTAINCY SHOUT SHOWS DESPERATE STATE FOR ENGLAND 

It is really no surprise that Ben Stokes distanced himself from the job of England captain. 

He is a loyal team-mate, Joe Root is his friend, and he would never do anything to undermine him. 

What is astonishing, however, is that anyone seriously advocates giving such a highly pressured role to a man who recently signed out of the game, citing mental health issues. This shows the desperate state English cricket is in. 

NDOMBELE LEFT A LASTING FIRST IMPRESSION 

On the night of Antonio Conte’s first game in charge of Tottenham a light conditioning session took place for the substitutes after the stadium had cleared. It was observed by Conte’s assistants, all jet black hair, blue tracksuits, cones and stopwatches.

It was the chance to make a good first impression, yet one player lagged at the back, to the extent he was a full length behind when the group did shuttle runs. That was Tanguy Ndombele. Admittedly, he had played 18 minutes of the game against Vitesse Arnhem, but so had Davinson Sanchez and Harry Winks. 

What did he think those coaches would tell the boss when they reported back? It is hardly a surprise that Ndombele has started two of the 10 games Tottenham have played since that day, and hasn’t contributed a minute across their last two matches. 

Announcing Tottenham needed to improve the squad, Conte confirmed: ‘I had to make the evaluation over who I can count on and who I can’t.’

One imagines some decisions were easier than others.

Many in tennis circles are predicting a tough year for US Open champion Emma Raducanu

Many in tennis circles are predicting a tough year for US Open champion Emma Raducanu 

TOUGH YEAR, EMMA? HOPE NOT  

Both Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver are predicting a tough 2022 for Emma Raducanu. Opponents will work her out, the pressure will be immense, 

Shriver even mentioned the complications caused by ‘new business partnerships’. ‘It’s such a sudden, unnatural step,’ she concluded, and that’s the crux. 

To do what Raducanu did, qualifier to Grand Slam champion, is unprecedented. 

So we have no idea if this signifies the start of a new era or an explosive meeting of raw talent and circumstance, a moment in time that can never be repeated. It is interesting, though, that those who have knowledge of the sport at its elite level are unwilling to read much into Raducanu’s US Open form. 

We can only hope she confounds expectations again. 

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