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HomesportRomelu Lukaku, Chelsea, Roma, and a $15 million gamble

Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea, Roma, and a $15 million gamble


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Spell Roma backwards and what do you get? age. flow from it.

Five thousand fans were waiting outside Ciampino airport in the Italian capital for the arrival of Romelu Lukaku. Another 16,000 on FlightRadar were tracking Roma owner Dan Friedkin’s Gulfstream jet. The plane’s speed (954 km/h), altitude (44,000 ft) and location (above Zurich) have replaced Lukaku’s goals and assists as a favorite statistic for die-hard Roma fans.

Lukaku had never received such a welcome before. A mural depicting him as the gladiator “Rommel V” has already appeared in Monti, the neighborhood near the Colosseum. A cardboard banner declared him the new king of Rome.

It remains to be seen if the club will organize another such event Paulo Dybala revealed A year ago, when 10,000 of his supporters gathered outside the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, they held their breath.

Friday’s match against AC Milan, the 35th consecutive home game at the Stadio Olimpico, will suffice. It’s easy to imagine him walking under the Curva Sud and picking up a scarf like the one Michel Bastos had wrapped around his neck all those years ago, unaware that the insulting slogan of his city rivals “Lazio Merda” (Dirty Lazio) is imprinted on it.

The reception at Ciampino and the events it caused in the Via Appia were not intended exclusively for Lukaku. It was to see Top Dan, the chief pilot, come to Earth.

As part of the bravado, it seemed as if the owners were wresting some of the narrative around their club from Emperor Mourinho. A sphinx-like billionaire who never talks but likes to show off his pilot’s license now and then and personally flies in Jose Mourinho, in this case Lukaku. Friedkin has a hangar full of classic planes, including the Spitfires he loaned Christopher Nolan for. Dunkirk movie.

Signing Lukaku wasn’t a British battle, as it was in 2017 when Mourinho’s Manchester United beat Chelsea under Antonio Conte in favor of the then Everton striker. Instead, there was no clear competition between the rich in the Saudi Professional League and the Serie A clubs restricted to Financial Fair Play (FFP). In an unseemly summer, in which Lukaku chased after Inter Milan rather than return to the San Siro for a third stint, he decided, to his credit, to miss Saudi Arabia, for the time being, and stay in one of the old leagues in world football.

Mourinho signed Lukaku at United (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Omar is key here as Lukaku, at Roma, will get the love he seems to no longer feel at Inter.

“He’s a big kid,” said Steve Walsh, former Everton director of football. the athlete On his conversation with Mourinho when he sold Lukaku to United.

Inter fans get it now. They brought it back last summer, and would do it again. But when Lukaku spent the first six months of the 2022-23 season injured and unable to score from open play and coach Simone Inzaghi relied on Edin Dzeko for the big games, he didn’t like it and turned his back on the one fanbase again. This really believed him to be the player he thought he was.

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Lukaku’s judgment must be questioned. After all, Inter let Dzeko go in the summer and intended to sign the Belgian permanently for a second time.

And last season’s Champions League runners-up can offer him another season at this level. Rome can’t. It was not UEFA’s first club competition in four years. Mourinho predicted, just last Friday, that Roma would finish “between fifth and eighth” in Serie A this season. And the next day they lost to Verona, a team that only escaped from Serie A last season thanks to a relegation play-off.

Lukaku should make a huge leap forward. The 30-year-old, like former Serie A player of the year Dybala, is the hinge on which the title races, not fourth place, swing in Italy.

The question arises: Is the signature presented as ambitious in its intent truly Ambitious if the desired result is only fourth place? Don’t get me wrong – in the Italian context, this is a massive coup. This is the second summer in a row that Roma have acquired a player who appeared destined for Inter at the start of the transfer window. The Friedkins, unlike the Elkans and Annelies behind Juventus, managed to secure a deal with Chelsea.

This is not normal. Detail of another unexpected work piece.

In 2021, Roma general manager Thiago Pinto spent five days in London working on the club-record signing of Tammy Abraham who, ironically, was sold by Chelsea to recoup some of the money spent on Lukaku, a club-record signing of their player. king.

This particular negotiation lasted for almost as long. Pinto traveled on Friday with Friedkin’s son, Ryan, the club’s vice-chairman. They met the Chelsea property after the Luton game that night and then had more talks in upscale London’s Mayfair the next morning.

The pressure mounting on Pinto was overwhelming.

Roma has been looking for a striker all summer. Links with Karim Benzema, then Alvaro Morata, Gianluca Scamaka, Marcos Leonardo and Duvan Zapata, only served to build expectations.

Never mind that Andrea Belotti, who failed to score for the club in Serie A last season, found the net twice in the opening game of the season against Salernitana. And it doesn’t matter that Pinto got Serdar Azmoun on loan from Bayer Leverkusen just last week. “When (Binto) offered me Azmoun, he told me there would be a striker as well,” Mourinho said. “If this is true, I will be happy.”

Returning to Roma without Lukaku, amid all the fans’ expectations, is out of the question although the finances are hard to fathom. The cost of just loaning out the player is a herculean effort for Roma.

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Dealing with Pinto was not easy when he became the club’s general manager.

He has been given the task of cleaning up the mess left by Monchi – such as a five-year contract extension for 29-year-old Javier Pastore – compounded by missteps including the €29m (£24.9m/$31.5m at current rates) acquisition of Marash Kumbola introduced by him. CEO, Guido Venga, who transferred one ownership group to another.

The big bang in Mourinho’s first summer, netting €110m and not leading to Champions League qualification, has caught up with them. A year ago, Roma were hit with severe penalties related to the Financial Fair Play settlement awarded to clubs in Serie A. And Pinto had to jump through burning hoops to please UEFA and Mourinho. This summer honestly felt like an FFP version of Mission: Impossible.

Losing last season’s Europa League final to Sevilla meant no Champions League revenue again, even in a year when fourth place in Serie A should have been available after Juventus lost 10 points.

The loss of Abraham to a long-term knee injury in the final game of the season meant that a cash-making sale was no longer apparent and Roma needed to raise around €30m by June 30 in order to comply with financial fair play rules.

Al-Ahly of Saudi Arabia cut a check for Roger Ibanez with this number just after the deadline. Bento met it, meanwhile, with marginal gains, as he sold Benjamin Tahirovic to Ajax, Christian Volpato and Filippo Missouri to Sassuolo, Justin Kluivert to Bournemouth, and Carles Perez to Celta Vigo.

Lukaku wanted due to Abraham’s injury (Sylvia Lor/Getty Images)

And it was not a small miracle as much as it was a major miracle. A string of sales clashed with Roma spending almost nothing.

As was the case last summer, when Zeki Celik was the only signing on fee, Pinto and his scouts have had to work the free agent and loan markets.

Subsequently, this led to injuries to Dybala, Belotti, Nemanja Matic and Gini Wijnaldum, who was soon lost due to a broken leg. This year, the Roma team finished last in the spending table. Everyone except Leandro Paredes is on loan (Renato Sanchez, Rasmus Christiansen, Azmoun) or Bosman’s free gift (Houssem Aouar and Ivan Ndyka).

A winless start through the first two games of the season added to the tension. This means that Chelsea can take advantage of the Saudi interest in Lukaku to demand a higher loan fee and greater coverage of his wages.

They played tough ball in a way that Pinto could respect. He was in the same position with Federico Fazio and Nicolo Zaniolo. Neither of them had a future at the club. Interested clubs knew too much and tried to get their nickel and dime from Rome. But Pinto needed to get the most out of their exit, just as Chelsea had done with Lukaku.

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The seriousness of Roma’s intent was signaled by the arrival in London of Friedkin Senior and the arrival of CEO Lena Soloko and Anna Rapuano, the club’s head of financial planning. In the end, the deal was sealed on Monday, but even the €6m loan fee and €7.5m salary cap is a huge undertaking for Roma. This makes Lukaku by far the highest paid player at the club, even when compared to Dybala.

But that’s what Mourinho wanted.

It was the final year of his contract and he wanted a player who scored 27 goals in their first season together at Old Trafford, a season in which United finished runners-up to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, a season Mourinho considered – in retrospect, and more importantly , the third person – as “one of his finest achievements”. It remains to be seen if Lukaku can make an immediate impact, after spending the summer without playing any football at all. Fourteen goals in 20 appearances for Inter last season suggests he has more to offer than Adriano when he was signed by Roma in his late 20s in 2010.

But it’s a gamble for Roma, in the same way it is signing Sanchez, who is affected by injuries. The Portuguese midfielder participated for half an hour in the season opener, which ended in a 2-2 draw with Salernitana, before suffering a muscle injury in training. And Romanesti must hope Lukaku does not do the same.

This is a huge year for the project.

On the one hand, Mourinho and the owners are ahead of schedule. They’ve won the cup and while some have played down the importance of winning the UEFA Conference League in 2022, the fans don’t care. They craved trophies of any kind and were grateful, even loyal, to the owners and Mourinho for handing them over. Two big names joined unexpectedly and only one (Zaniolo) was sold. The Olimpico stadium is full for every match.

On the other hand, if we ignore Nikola Zalewski, Abraham, Ndica, Aouar and Eduardo Bove, the team is collectively old and temporary, with little resale value. Mourinho may leave within one year. Lukaku is likely to return to Chelsea next summer. This is the danger. But Roma hope the reward will be, at least, a place in the top four in the 2023-2024 season.

The question I ask is: in a league so volatile, with four different champions in four years, shouldn’t a team like Roma pose a challenge in this third year of Mourinho’s reign at the Eternal City? Shouldn’t Lukaku be the last piece?

(Top photo: Aurelien Meunier – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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