Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku provide no answers to owners’ striking questions | Paul Doyle
At least they’ll always have Leicester. Even while they celebrated Wednesday’s sensational come-from-behind victory at the King Power, sensible Spurs fans – and their manager – knew it was most likely to be remembered as a joyous freak occurrence rather than the start of a new era.
In the excitement, that win was compared to Spurs’ magnificently ludicrous triumph over Ajax in the 2019 Champions League semi-final and it is true that the matches have similarities. Both created thrilling, enduring memories from improbable situations; and both were followed by monumental no-shows.
Not that Tottenham were as flat at Stamford Bridge as they were against Liverpool in the Champions League final, but they did emit comparable signs of a team in need of renewal. Antonio Conte already knew that, just as Mauricio Pochettino did three years ago. The Italian will hope that this, his team’s third comprehensive defeat by Chelsea in a month , will convince the club that appointed him nearly three months ago to allow him to buy more quality.
At Stamford Bridge, though, there was also further evidence that avoiding the transfer market can be a shrewd policy. At the start of the season Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku were tipped to vie for the golden boot. Instead they have spent most of the campaign unwittingly serving as poster boys for prudence.
So far Manchester City can feel smug about not agreeing to pay north of £120m for Kane’s services, while Lukaku’s performances since his £97.5m return to Chelsea have generally been an advertisement for focusing on youth.
Lukaku, like Kane, has five league goals to his name this season, the same number that the 20-year-old Armando Broja has struck for Southampton while on loan from Chelsea. Tammy Abraham, though unlikely to develop into a top striker, would probably also have scored that many if he had not been packed off to Roma.
Lukaku started the season deceptively well, feeding the tale of the happy homecoming by scoring in his first match, against Arsenal, as part of a performance that he described as “dominant”. His next goals came against Aston Villa. All very well, but it is telling that neither of the centre-backs he dominated in those matches – Arsenal’s Pablo Marí and Villa’s Axel Tuanzebe – still play in the Premier League, both having departed for Serie A, where Lukaku once thrived.
There has, of course, been mitigation for Lukaku’s inadequate return so far, although it is surely a reflection of the absurd infantilisation of modern footballers that one preview of this game suggested that the 28-year-old deserves sympathy because he has suffered from “injury, illness and a controversial interview”.
Speaking of speaking, Thomas Tuchel said in the run-up to this game that Lukaku and Kane would soon start scoring again “because that is what they do.’” Which rather missed the point of the question: that is not what they do much any more.
Kane hinted in recent weeks at regaining sharpness, perhaps thanks to being honed by Conte. The striker suggested his whole team is benefitting from the manager’s methods, venturing immediately before taking on Chelsea that “with our physical condition we can take the game deep and see if we can win it in the second half”. That did not seem such a ridiculous hope given that Tuchel had attributed his team’s plodding draw with Brighton on Tuesday to mental and physical fatigue. But Chelsea proved to be a class above Spurs again.
Lukaku and Kane, however, both remained below par. Lukaku had a chance to show his sharpness after just 42 seconds. But, after giving Eric Dier the slip to connect with Hakim Ziyech’s cross from the right, he slashed the ball over the bar from 10 yards. Kane’s first touch came two minutes later, when he received a pass just inside Chelsea’s half and tried to release Steven Bergwijn only to roll the ball to a defender.
Lukaku worked hard and did his best to get involved but precision eluded him. In the 32nd minute he escaped defenders’ attentions after Chelsea made inroads down the right wing for the umpteeth time. Mason Mount supplied the Belgian with a perfect cross. Lukaku simultaneously swung a foot at it and took his eyes off it, the result a comical fresh-air shot.
Other, harder chances followed but he could not get on the end of inviting crosses from Callum Hudson-Odoi and Antonio Rüdiger. Meanwhile, with Spurs’ emphasis on defence and Kane usually too slow to join in their rare counter-attacks, England’s captain contributed little. Until, that is, he spun and slotted the ball into the net. The referee ruled out the goal after spotting a foul on Thiago Silva, who probably exaggerated the harm done. Kane protested, at which point it would have been satisfying to see the referee direct Kane to a pitchside monitor to review the many times in his career that he has appealed for free kicks or penalties after innocent contact sent him flying.
When the start of the second half was delayed so that groundsmen could repair a burst net, it seemed like someone was mocking the misfiring strikers. Thank goodness the game did resume, because within moments Ziyech produced a finish of incredible precision. With that Spurs’ resistance was over, and there was no comeback.