Given Chelsea paid close to £100 million (€119m) to bring Lukaku back last summer, it was always going to cause ructions, and the 28-year-old was dropped from the squad for Sunday’s league game against Liverpool and treated as if he had acted in a disgraceful, reprehensible manner.
And so the record signing met head coach Thomas Tuchel yesterday, and this story headed toward the inevitability of Lukaku having to apologise should he want to be restored to the Chelsea team.
But the feeling persists that the response from Chelsea to this whole episode has already been over the top, even if Tuchel revealed he had consulted half a dozen senior players before deciding on the initial punishment – which, in itself, hints at more fundamental problems with Lukaku.
Surely it would have been wiser to put Lukaku on the bench against Liverpool, which would have shown he had been disciplined – if that is what Tuchel felt he needed to do to maintain his authority – while retaining the option of bringing him on. Instead, it was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
A story that Tuchel said was too noisy went up a few more decibels. But has Lukaku really been rude or hugely critical about Tuchel or Chelsea?
He has not refused to play or suggested he wants to go right now. In fact, he said he would continue to give everything for the club.
“I am just not very happy with the situation, but that’s normal,” he said.
“I think the boss has decided to play with a different formation. But I have to stick with it and get on with it professionally.”
The interview with Sky Italia took place several weeks ago, when Lukaku was working his way back to fitness and was not playing regularly. What a disgraceful rebel.
Incidentally, a few days before the interview was released, Lukaku’s Italian agent, Federico Pastorello, had also commented that his client would one day return to Serie A.
So, while the player’s interview was done without Chelsea’s consent, the sentiment was hardly a bombshell.
Chelsea mounted a stirring comeback from 2-0 down at Stamford Bridge to gain a point against Liverpool, but might have completed the job had Lukaku been available to bring on.
On the face of it, the treatment of Lukaku seems disproportionate, although it may be that Tuchel reacted in that manner because he felt dissatisfied, not just with what the player said but with the way he had behaved in talks with him.
But was what Lukaku said really that bad? As a journalist, I would always advocate that players express not just honest opinions, but interesting ones that lead to debate and discussion.
It has been said that Lukaku did not react in a “media-trained” way when he granted the interview, but that is just another way of saying: “Be bland, say nothing.”
The Belgium international has never been like that. He has spoken openly before – at Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United and Inter – and he has every right to express his opinion.
Lukaku was not disrespectful in what he said. Instead, his biggest crime was trying to have it both ways – in asking for forgiveness from Inter fans having left the club, and being somewhat disingenuous about the situation he walked into at Chelsea.
If he did not know the way Tuchel operates and how the coach wants his teams to play, then Lukaku is far less of a student of the game than he claims to be.
On his return to Stamford Bridge, he had unwisely said he wanted to spend the rest of his career there, so it is self-serving to tell an Italian audience he fancies a move back to Inter, and wants to secure it while he remains in his prime.
But maybe it was also an insight into the frustration he has felt at Chelsea and, for expressing that, he is to be commended. It should be remembered that Chelsea made all the running in signing Lukaku, who had not hidden the fact that he was happy at Inter, had rebuffed the initial approach and would have stayed.
The bottom line is, it feels unnecessary to slap down a player in this way. Footballers have a very strange existence. They are paid extraordinary amounts and fawned over, but can be reprimanded like naughty schoolboys and basically told to shut up.
I would always support candour. Football is just a game, albeit one that means so much, but it should also be one in which the participants – including fans, pundits and journalists – can talk openly about what they think and feel. Do not close that down.
In fact, if what Lukaku said was really so hurtful, may it be humbly suggested that those who are offended grow a slightly thicker skin.