Thomas Tuchel has confirmed Chelsea will be without Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner for at least the next two matches.

Club-record signing Lukaku was injured by a tackle from Lasse Nielsen that resulted in a penalty Jorginho confidently dispatched to add to Andreas Christensen's opener in Wednesday's 4-0 thrashing of Malmo in the Champions League.

Kai Havertz replaced Lukaku and scored Chelsea's third before playing a role in another spot-kick for the Blues converted by Jorginho, though Chelsea also lost Werner to a hamstring injury.  

Chelsea face the Premier League's bottom side Norwich City on Saturday, before going up against Southampton in the EFL Cup on Tuesday.

Though Tuchel refused to put a definitive timescale on the return of his two first-choice strikers, the former Paris Saint-Germain boss revealed neither will play a part in the two games.

"They're both out for tomorrow, all three of them are out for tomorrow," Tuchel told a news conference, also referring to Christian Pulisic, who has been out since suffering an ankle injury while on international duty in September.

"No big news, for Romelu and Timo the thing I can say is they are out tomorrow and the Southampton game and from there we will see what's next.

"I don't think it makes any sense to speculate how long it will be. The fact is you never know, things can be shorter or longer than expected. The one thing I can tell you for sure is both are in treatment, both are positive but are out for the next two games for sure."

Tuchel's decision to play Lukaku against Malmo has been questioned, with the striker having recently left Belgium's Nations League Finals camp early due to muscle fatigue.

With Chelsea's fixtures before the next international break comparatively kind - trips to Newcastle United and Malmo follow the Southampton match, before a home game with Burnley on November 6 - Tuchel was asked if Lukaku's enforced break had come at a good time.

"No, never a good thing, honestly never a good thing," Tuchel continued.

"Mentally, he was a bit overplayed, like other players in our squad, but that does not mean we have to rest them. Jorginho and Mason Mount are in the same spot but they played a fantastic match, so it is like this, they played a lot of competitions with a lot of enthusiasm and personal targets.

"It was not a muscle injury, it was an accident. It is just some percentage, don't underestimate the effort these players go through. 

"If you constantly turn the wheel, and the guy wants to turn it, take the responsibility, you can get tired. These little things can make a difference."

Chelsea allowed three forwards, Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud and Michy Batshuayi to leave in the last transfer window, but Tuchel has no regrets over that decision.

"You cannot keep a squad of 40 players," he added. "If you think Oli, Tammy and Michy would be in the perfect shape now, but hadn't made it into the 20-man squad, then would they be in the perfect shape?

"Of course in theory it would be like this, but [not] in real life. Nobody wants this to happen, it's a bit of bad luck that we have two injured players in the same position, we have to find solutions, there is no worry about the decisions."

Thomas Tuchel has urged Kai Havertz to shine as he gets the opportunity to lead the line for Chelsea with Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner out injured.

Premier League leaders Chelsea host struggling Norwich City on Saturday without those two forwards, who were injured during the 4-0 Champions League victory over Malmo on Wednesday.

Tuchel confirmed Lukaku and Werner will miss at least two games each and suggested it would be Havertz who fills the void after netting against Malmo.

Havertz has only started four of his side's eight league matches this season, scoring once while yet to register an assist, creating only one chance for his team-mates across 320 minutes of action.

Tuchel explained performances were the reason for the Germany international's lack of action and urged him to show his talent in the upcoming games with Norwich and Southampton to build on his last display.

"To speak the truth, there is only one way to make it to the pitch and stay on the pitch, that's performance," Tuchel said at his pre-match news conference.

"Kai was not at his highest level, others were closer to their level, so it was necessary he waited some matches - we felt other guys were in better shape. 

"He did what he needed to do, worked hard, showed resilience, determination to be more decisive, then he got minutes against Brentford, then he scored and was dangerous against Malmo. 

"Here we go, there's so much talent, so much potential and he needs to show it, it is as easy as that. 

"You get the minutes you deserve and the only thing to make it to the team is performance."

Chelsea have won 10 of their last 12 Premier League games against Norwich (D2), last losing against them in the top flight back in 1994. 

Tuchel believes Havertz, who scored the winning goal against Manchester City in the Champions League final at the end of last season, can serve as a similar focal point to Lukaku against the Canaries.

He added: "For me it's not so much a false nine because Kai is also very strong, in the last line, behind the last line, arriving in the box. 

"For me it's a big strength of his, we want this from him and he did against Malmo, so this is more what we expect from him on Saturday. 

"If you have Romelu in the squad, he is the reference you work around. We don't have him, the game will be a bit different but we want the same power, same amount of people in the box when we finish our attacks. 

"For me that does not change."

No side has conceded fewer goals than Chelsea in the Premier League this season (three), while Norwich have the worst attack so far (two goals scored). 

But Norwich will go to Stamford Bridge looking to keep three consecutive Premier League clean sheets for the first time since November 2012, the third game of which was a 1-0 victory against the side who were leading the league at that time, Manchester United.

Replacing Romelu Lukaku was never going to be easy, though, in Edin Dzeko, Inter may have gone some way to doing just that.

The 2021-22 campaign may still be in its infancy, but 35-year-old Dzeko has made a fantastic start as Inter look to defend the Serie A title that Lukaku's goals propelled them towards last season.

Dzeko took his tally for the season to seven with a sublime volley against Sheriff in the Champions League on Tuesday. Inter were pegged back, but the former Roma man turned from scorer to provider to tee up Arturo Vidal and swing the match back in the Nerazzurri's favour.

Heading into the first Derby d'Italia of the season, Simone Inzaghi's Inter sit three points above Juventus, who themselves have had to contend with the loss of a superstar forward.

Cristiano Ronaldo beat Lukaku in the Serie A scoring charts in 2020-21, yet while Inter, spearheaded by Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez, lead the way for goals scored so far this season with 23, Juve are lagging some 11 behind.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses how the two giants of Italian football have adapted – and are still adapting – to the attackers at their disposal, and if that could prove the difference on Sunday.

Replacing Rom

Chelsea broke their transfer record to re-sign Lukaku in August for a whopping £97.5million (€115m). The cash was needed by Inter, who had already sold Achraf Hakimi to Paris Saint-Germain and lost their title-winning coach Antonio Conte as well. Lukaku had initially been happy to stay on under Inzaghi, but the pull of a return to Stamford Bridge ultimately proved too strong to turn down.

Across his two seasons with Inter, Lukaku scored 64 goals in 95 games across all competitions. Last season he scored 24 goals and set up a further 11, putting the suggestion he was merely a penalty box poacher firmly to bed. Indeed, Lukaku's tally of seven secondary assists (the pass before the assist) ranked joint-highest in Italy's top flight.

Lukaku refined his game and has returned to the Premier League a better player, leaving Inter with a huge void to fill. Dzeko represented a prudent option.

Having spent the last six seasons at Roma, Dzeko needed no adaptation to the league. He scored 85 Serie A goals during his spell in the capital, having previously played a huge role in Manchester City's Premier League title successes in 2012 and 2014.

Since his move to Wolfsburg in 2007, Dzeko has only scored under 10 goals in all competitions in three seasons, while he missed only 22 league matches during his stint with Roma. Reliable, experienced and a proven goalscorer. With Inter's financial restraints, it was a no-brainer.

Joaquin Correa, capable of playing anywhere across the frontline, has also come in to boost Inter's ranks, though the start Dzeko has made may have even exceeded the club's expectations. 

Dzeko is averaging just under a goal per game in Serie A, having netted six times across eight appearances, with an impressive shot conversion rate of 35.29 per cent and scoring five of the six big chances that have come his way.

He has also picked up where Lukaku left off in terms of creativity, crafting 15 chances so far across his 11 appearances in all competitions, registering two assists.

 

Partners in crime

Lukaku's departure also left Inter needing to find a suitable partner for Martinez. The duo combined for eight Serie A goals last season, more than any other pairing, albeit the first of those did not arrive until matchday eight in November.

In total, Lukaku found Martinez on 68 occasions in Serie A last term (at an average of 1.9 per game), with 16 of those being key passes, and five resulting in assists.

A brilliant example of their stellar combination in action came in a pivotal 3-1 win over Lazio in February; Lukaku – on a hat-trick at the time – charging clear of a desperate defender before coolly sliding it across for the waiting Martinez to tap in.

Martinez picked out Lukaku 52 times, providing three assists and creating a total of 13 chances for his strike partner. They played 36 league matches together, accumulating 2,069 minutes.

Dzeko too, however, has been able to link up well with Martinez. On average over the seven matches they have played in, he passes to his team-mate 1.7 times per game, with the Bosnia-Herzegovina forward creating two chances for his Argentine counterpart.

Across the 357 minutes played together, the duo have found each other 22 times, though Martinez is yet to craft a chance from those passes.

Inter, who have scored 78 goals across 32 Serie A games in 2021 (only Bayern Munich have managed more across the big five European leagues), would be extremely fortunate if this partnership proves as profitable as the Lukaku-Martinez axis did, though there are certainly bright signs.

 

Replacing Ron

Inter might have struck gold with Dzeko, but Juve have struggled in attack early in Massimiliano Allegri's second spell in charge.

With Ronaldo gone, the onus is on Paulo Dybala. He scored against Udinese in the opening game of 2021-22 and found the net against Sampdoria last month, only to succumb to an injury that has since kept him out.

Only four players across Europe's top five leagues managed more goals in all competitions than Ronaldo did last season (36), while Alvaro Morata (20) and Federico Chiesa (14) were the only other Juve players to get into double figures.

Dybala's injury issues have derailed his last few campaigns, leaving Morata as Juve's main goal threat.

The Spain international enjoyed an impressive partnership with Ronaldo, providing four assists and creating 15 chances in 2020-21, though the favour was not returned – Morata only receiving four key passes from Ronaldo in 27 league matches.

 

Yet if Juve can keep Dybala fit, there may be something for Allegri to build on, with Morata playing more passes to the Argentina forward than he has done to any other team-mate so far this season (12), albeit that has only resulted in one goalscoring opportunity.

Sunday's showdown at San Siro comes too early in the season to be truly decisive, though a second successive home win over Juve would be a huge boost.

In Dzeko and Martinez, Inzaghi has a functioning strike force that has already contributed 12 goals to Inter's cause. Allegri's two central forwards, meanwhile, have only managed six between them. 

Thomas Tuchel rallied Chelsea's bit-part players by telling them "the race is on" to prove themselves after Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner were injured.

Lukaku sustained an ankle injury and Werner hurt his hamstring during the first half of the 4-0 home victory over Malmo in Champions League Group H on Wednesday.

Belgium striker Lukaku was injured by a tackle from Lasse Nielsen that resulted in a penalty Jorginho confidently dispatched to add to Andreas Christensen's opener. 

Kai Havertz replaced Lukaku and scored Chelsea's third before playing a role in another spot-kick for the Blues that was converted by Jorginho. 

Chelsea have five games to come over the next 17 days and Tuchel said there can be no excuses for a decline in results if Lukaku and Werner are sidelined for an extended period. 

"We have a twisted ankle with Romelu and a hamstring injury for Timo, so they will be out for some days, I guess," Tuchel told BT Sport. 

"Normally we're in a good place injury-wise – we had only Christian Pulisic out. But we miss everybody. We have a lot of games to play, a lot of competitions. Now we have to find solutions. No excuses accepted. 

"The two were in good shape and were dangerous and could create and score. Now we need to find solutions and guys who waited for their chance need to step up and prove that they can do the same thing. 

"Whoever it might be, the race is on. The guys who will start against Norwich in the next game have our trust. We will try to find new solutions. 

"Let's stay positive. We won games before without Timo and we won games before without Romelu. We don't want to have these problems too often but these things happen in the season." 

Havertz could now be in line to start against Norwich City in the Premier League on Saturday. 

He said: "I came from the bench, you always have to be ready, it is always tough to come in but I tried to do my best in the second half to score a goal, so it is a nice feeling. 

"Timo said they have to do an MRI tomorrow, they are top-level strikers and I hope it's not too bad for them." 

Chelsea cruised to a 4-0 victory over Malmo in Champions League Group H on Wednesday despite losing Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner to injuries. 

After Andreas Christensen scored his first Chelsea goal in his 137th appearance for the club, Lukaku had to go off with an apparent ankle injury after winning a penalty that was fired home by Jorginho. 

Kai Havertz replaced the Belgium international and, after Werner was substituted due to a hamstring issue, increased their lead early in the second half. 

Ballon d'Or nominee Jorginho converted another spot-kick to round off the scoring before the hour mark, though Chelsea remain three points behind group leaders Juventus after the Italian side left it late to beat Zenit 1-0. 

The offside flag spared Werner's blushes after a miskick inside the six-yard box but Chelsea were soon ahead when Christensen volleyed fellow centre-back Thiago Silva's cross into the top-right corner. 

Chelsea were awarded a penalty when Lasse Nielsen scythed down Lukaku in the box and Jorginho confidently sent his spot-kick straight down the middle. 

The Blues suffered another injury blow before half-time with Werner appearing to pull his hamstring while sprinting into the box to support Havertz. 

Havertz was unable to take that opportunity but he got the better of Ismael Diawara – who replaced goalkeeper Johan Dahlin at half-time – three minutes after the restart, dinking fellow substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi's pass in off the post. 

Referee Francois Letexier pointed to the spot again after Eric Larsson bundled Antonio Rudiger over in the box and Jorginho once more produced an unerring finish.

Tuchel took the chance to give N'Golo Kante, Cesar Azpilicueta and Ben Chilwell a rest in the closing stages, with Chelsea seeing out a resounding victory at a canter. 

What does it mean? Chelsea must rely on depth 

With six games to play in the next 17 days, it is unlikely Tuchel will rush Lukaku and Werner back into action even if their injuries are only minor. 

However, the two strikers have struggled for form in recent weeks and Christensen's goal made him Chelsea's 14th different goalscorer this season. 

Havertz also proved himself adept at leading the line, scoring once and play a key role in winning the second penalty. 

Tuchel joins elite group 

This was Tuchel's 10th Champions League game in charge of Chelsea and having kept a clean sheet they have conceded just three times under the German. It is the joint-fewest through a coach's first 10 games for a single club in the competition, joining Fabio Capello (Milan) and Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid). 

Havertz a handful 

No player has scored more goals for Chelsea under Tuchel than Havertz - though Jorginho and Mason Mount also have six. He was a persistent threat during his 70 minutes on the pitch, as he scored and created the chance for Rudiger that resulted in the second penalty. 

What's next? 

Even if Lukaku and Werner are unavailable, Chelsea will feel confident about their chances of securing a result at home to Norwich City in the Premier League on Saturday. 

Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner hobbled off during the first half of Chelsea's Champions League clash with Malmo on Wednesday. 

Belgium striker Lukaku had to be replaced following a tackle from Lasse Nielsen, which resulted in a penalty that was scored by Jorginho to put Thomas Tuchel's side 2-0 up. 

Chelsea had further cause for concern when Werner appeared to pull his hamstring and was unable to continue, with Callum Hudson-Odoi replacing him before half-time. 

The reigning European champions have six games in the next 17 days, and Tuchel will hope his strike duo will be able to recover swiftly.

Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel says the club have discussed a move for Erling Haaland and has not ruled out partnering the Borussia Dortmund striker with Romelu Lukaku at Stamford Bridge.

Haaland was touted as a target for a number of European heavyweights during the most recent transfer window on the back of a first full campaign with Dortmund that saw him register 41 goals in the same number of appearances in all competitions.

The 21-year-old has 70 goals in 69 games for the German club overall since making his debut in January 2020 – only Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (88 goals in 73 games) has a better return among players from Europe's top five leagues.

He still has two and a half years to run on his contract at Signal Iduna Park and Dortmund were under no pressure to sell their prolific marksman in the close season after offloading Jadon Sancho to Manchester United for £72.9million (€85m).

However, a rumoured release clause of €75m will come into effect at the end of the current campaign and Tuchel indicated Chelsea could still make a move for the in-demand striker.

"We talked about Erling Haaland a couple of times, including during the transfer window. But then it seemed absolutely unrealistic and not at all feasible," he told Sport Bild.

"We still talk about him regularly, of course, because he's a fantastic player and clearly the defining figure at Dortmund, who are a big rival for us in the Champions League."

 

Chelsea instead re-signed Romelu Lukaku from Inter ahead of the 2021-22 campaign and the Belgium international has scored four goals in his first 10 games back in west London.

Lukaku's minutes-per-goal return of 129.04 at club level since January 2020 is among the best in Europe, but it is still some way off Haaland's 81.74.

Asked if the pair could play alongside each other in the same side, Tuchel said: "We can talk about it. I don't think we've been really serious about it yet, but let's see what will happen in the next few weeks."

Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel feels that Romelu Lukaku is suffering from the effects of being overplayed.

The centre-forward started each of Belgium's five games at Euro 2020 and has since featured in two World Cup qualification fixtures and a Nations League semi-final for his country.

In addition, Lukaku was Inter's fourth-most used player last season across all competitions, playing 3,564 minutes as the Nerazzurri won Serie A, and has already played 810 minutes in all tournaments for Chelsea this term.

The 28-year-old scored four goals in his first four appearances for the Blues, but has failed to find the net in his subsequent six outings in all competitions.

"At the moment, in my opinion, I feel Romelu has [been] overplayed," Tuchel said ahead of Chelsea's Champions League clash with Malmo. "I think he has played in too many competitions over the summer, too many with the national team and now he's played in the Nations League.

"He is a fantastic athlete and such a competitive guy, he digs in deep and he wants to win these things, he wants to be out there and win so I know how much he wanted a good outcome at the European Championship with Belgium and the Nations League. 

"It means a lot to him to play for his country so he takes it really serious if it does not work well. He puts it on his shoulders, he thinks about it and reflects about it.

"I feel that he is a bit mentally tired, not that hugely that we have a concern but he's not like fully enjoying without having second or third thoughts. He will find his rhythm once he finds things a bit easier."

After a strong start, Chelsea have lost two of their last four games and Tuchel feels the whole squad is feeling the effects of a congested fixture schedule.

"It's the same for some other players too, they struggle too, they have a lot of weight for their countries and they love it, they are competitors," Tuchel continued.

"I think we lack a little bit of form and we lack a bit of enthusiasm in the last per cent and I think the one big reason is because we play too much, not we as a club but the players.

"I'm a big friend of quality not quantity so this is the situation we are facing right now but it's nothing new and the next national break is coming soon and it won't change.

"The Premier League is the toughest in the world, there is no shame in having a tight match at Brentford, there's absolutely no shame that you need a late winner at Southampton, it is what it is.

"It's very important that we don't feel ashamed and not too critical of ourselves, you fight through the hard moments.

"We lack a bit of form, we lack a bit of freshness and a bit of joy, for me, the key reason is not mentality, it's not attitude, it's nothing else but the travels, it can be tiring."

Chelsea host Swedish side Malmo at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday in what will be the Blues' 13th competitive fixture of the season. Christian Pulisic is the only player unavailable to Tuchel after sustaining an injury on international duty with the USA.

Romelu Lukaku is fit for Chelsea's trip to Brentford on Saturday but a frustrated Thomas Tuchel has revealed Antonio Rudiger will join fellow centre-back Thiago Silva in missing out.

Superstar striker Lukaku withdrew from Belgium duty with muscle fatigue and was a doubt for the Premier League leaders' short hop across west London.

However, Blues boss Tuchel told a pre-match news conference: "Romelu is fine, had all training sessions, he will play tomorrow."

The news was not so positive on Rudiger, though, after he came back from his time with Germany with a back issue.

Christian Pulisic remains out, while Hakim Ziyech has been struggling with headaches.

"Toni Rudiger came back injured from the national team, Christian Pulisic is still injured, we have doubts of Ziyech – he missed two sessions with a headache," Tuchel said.

Veteran centre-back Silva is also absent having featured in Brazil's 4-1 World Cup qualifying win over Uruguay on Thursday night. 

The short turnaround between that clash and Saturday's fixture is a source of frustration for Tuchel, who says the situation is one he has learned to contend with.

"He will be back in the afternoon hopefully safe from this match in Brazil," he said of Silva.

"We had our talk today about Brentford, we had our tactical talk, he missed all that. He played 90 minutes, had all that travelling, he is not available. 

"Of course, I'm not happy, but I knew before when he will come back, when he will travel. I got used to a lot of stuff in national breaks, this is how it is. Are we happy all the coaches with the games players play for their countries? No, they [are] not. Do they ask us anything? No. I knew it before.

"We speak about it during UEFA coaches meetings. The calendar, you have to accept it.

"I'm not even too frustrated about it, but I think it's too many games, too many competitions for the top players in the clubs. The game is for the players, for the spectators, and spectators want the best players on the pitch, healthy and hungry, and we cannot always provide it if you play so many games in so many competitions.

"Given we only have three [substitute] changes, unlike five in other leagues, it's a big thing we have to cope with.

"I'm actually not too frustrated, I know what's coming, I know when the next international break is coming, we try to do our best in every international break."

Romelu Lukaku has described his first spell at Chelsea as "painful", but he insists the experience helped him improve as a player and is confident the timing of his return to Stamford Bridge could not be better.

The Belgium striker joined the Blues from Anderlecht in 2011 as a teenager, but played just 159 Premier League minutes in his first season before loans to West Brom and Everton in the next two campaigns, eventually joining the latter on a permanent basis in 2014.

A further three years on Merseyside were followed by stints at Manchester United and Inter, before Lukaku returned to Chelsea this season.

He has four goals in all competitions so far this term, at least twice as many as any team-mate, from a team-high 25 shots. Left-back Marcos Alonso is next on that list, with 17.

Lukaku has actually marginally underperformed compared to his expected goals total of 4.15, yet he has brought more than goals alone, creating 15 chances – this time just behind leader Alonso (18).

The 28-year-old believes that his time in London played a significant part in his development.

"[My first spell at Chelsea] was painful and helpful, but I would say more helpful because it gave me the mentality and the mindset that I needed to become the player I am today," Lukaku said.

"The team was very good, but nobody saw the extra work they did after the training sessions. As an 18-year-old, I saw first-hand every day how much the players worked on their craft.

"That’s when I knew that was what you had to do to become this type of player. I told myself, 'when I’m not playing, this is what I'm going to do', and it basically just became a lifestyle."

Lukaku is no longer the raw teenager that arrived in England 10 years ago, now back at Chelsea as a seasoned, world-class centre-forward who was a key part of the Inter side that wrested the Serie A title from Juventus last term, scoring every 120 minutes in the league.

He was linked with a return to Stamford Bridge from Everton in 2017, but instead joined United while Chelsea signed Alvaro Morata. However, Lukaku is certain the circumstances of this move are perfect.

"I knew I would improve as a player, so it was just about timing," Lukaku added. "I had two opportunities to come back, in 2016 and 2017, but it didn’t happen for various reasons.

"In the end, it happened because now is the right time, the right age, the team is doing well and everything is there for it to be successful.

"I’m much more calm. I've matured with fatherhood, and I’m more laid-back. After winning in Italy and knowing what it takes to get there, that really helped me. In the last three years, I’ve been able to build something that I can take on for the rest of my career.

"It can be complicated but when you really set your mind to do something, and you really dedicate everything that you have to that goal, you can achieve it. I recognised my little qualities and talent, but I also knew what I was not good at, and I really spent a lot of time working on those attributes to be the complete package.

"Now, it feels good. I'm very happy with the opportunity, and we've started really well as a team. My team-mates have made life very easy for me and the coach is doing a great job. Our performances have been good, but we're always looking for the next challenge."

Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel believes Jorginho is the player most deserving of this year's Ballon d'Or, but does not believe the award should be seen as hugely important.

The 29-year-old won the Champions League with the Blues and Euro 2020 with Italy last season and was handed the UEFA Men's Player of the Year prize as a result.

Midfielder Jorginho is now in contention for another individual gong after being named on the Ballon d'Or's 30-man shortlist alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.

"Jorginho really deserves to win the Ballon d'Or," Tuchel said while attending the Gazzetta festival. 

"These individual prizes, however, are not of great value on the football field, it is impossible to make a real comparison.

"Obviously, I would like it if my player wins it, because it would greatly increase the confidence he has in his own means, but for me, it is not an essential thing."

N'Golo Kante, Cesar Azpilicueta, Mason Mount and Romelu Lukaku also represent Chelsea on the shortlist for the prestigious prize, and Tuchel had plenty to say about Lukaku, who returned to Stamford Bridge from Inter in August.

"I'm sorry for the Inter fans, but we have identified in him a player of personality who could also lift the pressure from the shoulders of the youngest and who would give us the opportunity to play football faster," Tuchel added. 

"He had always said he was fine with Inter and with [Antonio] Conte because he had achieved excellent results, but for him, it was important to go back to where he had played as a [young man]." 

Lukaku has made a solid start to life back in London, scoring four goals in nine appearances across all competitions in his second stint as a Chelsea player.

 

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez believes his side are stronger now than they were three years ago when they made the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.

Martinez's side, who are currently first in the FIFA rankings, will play their World Cup semi-final conquerors France in the final four of the Nations League on Thursday.

After their third-place finish at Russia 2018, Belgium were beaten by Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals in July, prompting suggestions the Red Devils' golden generation had missed their chance for silverware.

Martinez's starting XI in their World Cup semi-final defeat was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the tournament, which some might argue was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. 

"I think I would like to believe that we are stronger just because internally I do feel that we can cope with more players when they are suspended or they are out of the squad," Martinez said during a news conference ahead of the clash with world champions France in Turin.

"I think the pool of players for Belgium now has grown, and as well, an extra three years that we've been able to play together.

"That's what synchronises us, something that you haven't got a lot of in international football. I think we always try to have a certain continuity with the players and try to work like you would do in a club environment.

"The understanding between the players is a lot better. We've been through a lot together. In terms of experience and the pool of players, I believe that we are stronger than we were in 2018."

Martinez conceded France had also grown from their 2018 triumph, citing Kylian Mbappe's evolution into a world-class talent along with the re-emergence of Karim Benzema after international exile and Paul Pogba's return to form.

"I would believe that if you'd ask [France head coach] Didier Deschamps this, he'd also say that his team has improved as well since 2018," Martinez said. "I think this generation in French football, they've got probably three elite footballers per position."

Martinez was full of praise for Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku, who spoke out about his dislike of his tag as a "target man" earlier this week.

Lukaku, who moved from Serie A champions Inter to Champions League holders Chelsea in August, has netted eight times in Belgium's past eight matches and Martinez praised his all-round threat.

"Romelu has become a number nine that can do everything," Martinez said of Belgium's all-time leading scorer. "He can play with his back to the play and run in behind.

"He's got the power, the pace, he's got the understanding of combining with other players as someone that can play with the pace and power, but with intelligence as well.

"I think at his time at the end in Italy with Inter Milan, give him another degree of maturity as well. You're talking about player that is now at the height of his career and his outstanding knack is always scoring goals."

Is there a more reliable way of making sure a football team fails to live up to expectations than to label them the 'Golden Generation'?

Okay, maybe that's a little reductive as 'living up to expectations' is of course entirely dependent on context – the Czech Republic's 'Golden Generation' from 1996-2006 finished second and third at two out of three European Championship appearances. While not successful in the literal sense, most would agree it was a commendable achievement.

But for Belgium's plentiful crop, a lot more was expected than what they've achieved. While perhaps less of a disappointment than England's own 'Golden Generation', third place at a World Cup isn't going to be much of a legacy given some of the talent the Red Devils have had.

Roberto Martinez's side fell at the quarter-final hurdle in Euro 2020, with eventual winners Italy emerging 2-1 victors and Belgium left to watch the latter stages of another tournament pass them by.

At the very least, this week does offer them a chance at a first international trophy. They face France in Turin on Thursday in the second of the 2021 Nations League semi-finals.

But down the line when their best talents have retired, would the Nations League – which probably has a limited shelf-life itself if certain people at FIFA get their way over proposals for biennial World Cups – really suffice as the pinnacle of their achievements?

Red Devils awaiting replenishment

Of course, Belgium do still have time – the next World Cup is only 13 months away.

But how many would realistically consider them among the favourites? Concerns over the age of their squad are valid and, while 13 months isn't necessarily a long time, elite football has a tendency to expose and exacerbate even the slightest weakness, of which age can be an example.

Reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final was the closest Belgium have come to winning the biggest prize in football, as they got to the last four before ultimately losing to Thursday's opponents France.

 

Martinez's starting XI in that game was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the 2018 World Cup. While that may not necessarily be shockingly old in itself, some might suggest that was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Since Russia 2018, Belgium have only got older. Now, you might be inclined to say, "Yeah, that's how aging works, genius", but football is obviously cyclical. Teams don't just age for eternity, they are refreshed and replenished.

It's difficult to say that's happening on a consistent basis with Belgium, though.

Young Lions setting the example

Gareth Southgate's England got just as far as Belgium in Russia and their squad was already rather young (26.0 years), with only Nigeria (25.9) having a younger group of players at the tournament.

The third-place play-off – when fringe players were given opportunities – aside, England's starting XI's average age only dipped below 26 once, and that was their third group game (also against Belgium) having already secured a spot in the next round.

But there were clear signs of further refreshment to Southgate's team after the tournament, with their first XI's average age not reaching 26 again for more than two years (November 2020).

 

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. Their oldest average age in that time, 30 years and 148, was during the 1-0 win over Portugal at Euro 2020.

Of course, it didn't work out too badly on that occasion, and their collective age isn't necessarily a barrier in a given game, but it does suggest Martinez has to be reliant on his older players because the next generation isn't of the same calibre.

The starting XI selected against Portugal at the Euros was the second-oldest named by any team at the tournament after Slovakia.

While key players such as Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco, Youri Tielemans and Thibaut Courtois haven't reached 30, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard have.

So, what of the next generation?

Belgium's next hopefuls

Belgium's youngest team of 2021 – and fourth-youngest since the start of the last World Cup – was named last month (26 years, 364 days) in the 1-0 win away to Belarus.

Among the 15 players who featured, only three were 24 or younger: Dodi Lukebakio, Tielemans and Alexis Saelemaekers, who at 22 was the youngest. Zinho Vanheusden (also 22), Yari Verschaeren and Charles De Ketelaere (both 20) were unused substitutes.

Arsenal midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga (21) had been in the squad, while Jeremy Doku impressed with his pace and trickery at Euro 2020 despite only turning 19 in May. These, for the time being, appear to be Belgium's next biggest hopes.

Lokonga looks set to be an interesting option in midfield. Athletic and a hard worker, his 62.2 per cent duel success was the 15th highest among outfield players in the Belgian Pro League last season, but he's also an assuring presence in possession.

 

Of the Pro League players to attempt at least 30 dribbles last term, Lokonga (41) ranked third in terms of completion percentage (72.1), while no midfielder or winger recorded more ball carries (627) than him. Among the same group, only three – two of whom were wingers – carried the ball further upfield over the course of the campaign than Lokonga (3,356.9 metres).

His former Anderlecht team-mate Verschaeren has been around for a few years now, with this impressively his fourth season in the club's first team. Last term saw him progress as a goal threat, improving from two the season before to six, but early suggestions he could be the 'next Eden Hazard' haven't really been on the money.

While Hazard has always been renowned for his dribbling, Verschaeren is a rather less conventional winger in that sense given he only attempted 1.8 per 90 minutes in 2020-21. Instead, his strength lies in link-up play, with just six players among forwards and midfielders (at least 900 minutes played) bettering his 83.5 per cent pass completion in the attacking half of the pitch.

Although his shot-ending sequence involvement average of 4.1 per 90 minutes was unspectacular, it was above average, whereas his goal-ending sequence involvement of 0.8 each game was bettered only seven.

But where Verschaeren's stock may not have risen as quickly as some expected a couple of years ago, De Ketelaere does appear to be on a good trajectory.

Capable of playing as a striker, winger or No.10, De Ketelaere has often been deemed lightweight despite his height and easily knocked off the ball. His duel success has improved to 54.6 per cent this term from 44.3 – among the worst – last season, a consequence of him bulking up somewhat, and although he continues to lack presence aerially (36.8 per cent aerial success), De Ketelaere can get by because he's a good technician.

He was important as an associative player in attack in 2020-21, as demonstrated by the fact he was involved in shot-ending sequences with a total xG (expected goals) value of 21.8, the seventh-highest in the Pro League, while he's already matched last season's goals output of four.

 

Doku is seemingly the outstanding one of the bunch in terms of flair, at the very least. He attempted (184) and completed (110) the fifth-most dribbles across the top five European leagues last season, encouraging proof of his confidence and technique.

Currently injured, Doku still has plenty to work on in terms of his end product, but the raw minerals are there, and he didn't look out of place at Euro 2020.

Are these youngsters enough to carry the burden of expectation that's been cultivated by Belgium's 'Golden Generation', though? At the moment it's difficult to say the new kids on the block are generally of the same quality on an individual level, because Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard et al have just been so good over the years.

While Nations League success may not cut it as a satisfactory legacy for this Belgium team, winning the title in Italy might just give them the nudge their collective mentality needs ahead of what looks likely to be a last realistic tilt at the World Cup for a while.

Romelu Lukaku hates being labelled a "goal poacher" as the Chelsea and Belgium striker believes he is an all-rounder in attack.

The 28-year-old returned to Chelsea from Inter in August and has scored four goals in nine appearances this term.

He has been one of the most prolific frontmen over the past decade, the Belgium international reaching double figures for league goals in each of the last nine seasons.

Since the start of 2019-20 when joining Inter, Lukaku's 50 goals in 78 league appearances is a tally bettered by only five others in Europe's top five divisions.

Of those half-century of goals, just two have come from outside the penalty area – against Brescia in 2019-20 and Genoa in 2020-21, both during his time with Inter.

However, Lukaku feels his reputation can sometimes precede him.

"The way I'm built – I'm quite big – everybody thinks I'm a sort of target man: just holding up the ball and being a goal poacher," he said in an interview with UEFA. 

"But I've never played that way and I hate it. My biggest strength is that I'm dangerous when I'm facing towards the goal, because that's when I rarely make wrong choices.

"After I pass the ball, I know where I have to position myself in the box. 

"I can do a bit of everything and in some games when I know there is a lot of space behind the defence, I play differently. 

"The reason I'm so productive [in front of goal] is because I can do a bit of everything."

Lukaku marked his 100th cap for Belgium with his 67th goal in last month's 3-0 win against the Czech Republic, extending his record as his country's all-time leading scorer.

"To have reached 100 caps is something you really strive to achieve as a young player," he said. "I was lucky that I started out at an early age. 

"I'm 28 now; nearly 12 years have passed with lots of ups and downs, but as a team we have always continued to grow. 

"In the end, the ultimate goal remains to win and that's my motivation. Every time I play for the national team, I want to win. And to win a tournament."

Despite being on course to finish as the world's top-ranked nation for the fourth year running, Belgium have yet to claim any silverware with their golden generation of talent.

That could change this week, though, as Roberto Martinez's men take on France in the Nations League semi-finals on Thursday, with Spain and Italy also vying for a place in Sunday's final.

"In recent years, we have always managed to have a good start at tournaments and the expectations were always high," Lukaku said. 

"At Euro 2016 we didn't deliver. It was very hard. During the 2018 World Cup we did quite well.

"But I think now in the Nations League we must do really well, so that we can peak at the next World Cup."

With another international break almost upon us, fantasy football players will be able to rest easy for a couple of weeks at the start of October.

But first, there are plenty of important points to be had.

With Liverpool hosting Manchester City, Chelsea eager to get back to winning ways and Arsenal preparing for a tricky test at Brighton and Hove Albion, there is plenty of value to be had with some wise selections.

Allow Stats Perform to lend a guiding hand, with the help of Opta data...

 

EDOUARD MENDY (Chelsea v Southampton)

Back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and Juventus have somewhat derailed Chelsea's good start to the season, and Thomas Tuchel will expect a response against Southampton.

Saints have failed to score in their past three league matches and, in Edouard Mendy, they will be facing the goalkeeper with the best save percentage in the division this season (90 per cent), out of those to have played more than once in the competition.

Mendy is conceding just once every 225 minutes on average, a stat likely to worry winless Southampton but bring encouragement to fantasy football players.

 

ANDY ROBERTSON (Liverpool v Manchester City)

Since the start of last season, Andy Robertson has provided eight Premier League assists. The only defender with more is, you guessed it, Liverpool team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold (nine).

The England right-back is also the only defender since last September with more passes into the box and chances created than Robertson, who has managed 329 and 52 respectively.

With Alexander-Arnold ruled out by Jurgen Klopp due to injury, Robertson could play an even more pivotal role for the Reds against the reigning champions.

 

JOAO CANCELO (Liverpool v Manchester City)

If you are looking for value in both boxes, Joao Cancelo may well be your best bet.

No Premier League defender has had more touches in the opposition box (16), while only Cancelo and team-mate Ruben Dias can boast five clean sheets in the competition in the 2021-22 season so far.

With 10 shots and one assist to his name, Cancelo will be another full-back to watch with interest at Anfield.

WILFRIED ZAHA (Crystal Palace v Leicester City)

Leicester could be vulnerable after a Thursday Europa League trip to Poland, especially with Palace having gone three home games without defeat while conceding just once.

The Foxes also happen to be among Wilfried Zaha's favourite opponents. The Ivory Coast international has six goals and two assists against them in 12 games, more than he has against any other side.

It is perhaps also worth mentioning that, as a player, Palace boss Patrick Vieira played 11 times against Leicester and never lost.

 

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN (Wolves v Newcastle United)

Aside from being one of the most fun players in the top flight, Allan Saint-Maximin is also Newcastle's greatest goal threat.

With two scored and three assisted, he has been directly involved in 71 per cent of all the Magpies' league goals this season and has had a hand in at least one in each of his past four appearances.

Newcastle have only won one of their most recent nine league encounters with Wolves, who themselves have not beaten their next opponents at home since April 1993. Perhaps Saint-Maximin is the man to tip the balance.

 

NEAL MAUPAY (Brighton and Hove Albion v Arsenal)

Speaking of key players, Brighton owe half of their eight league goals this season to Neal Maupay, who is looking to score in three consecutive top-flight matches for the first time in a year.

Arsenal are one of his preferred opponents, too: he has scored the winner in two out of three league meetings with the Gunners.

Mikel Arteta's side should be feeling positive after their derby win, but the Seagulls have won three of their past four home matches in the league, as many as they had managed in their previous 22.

 

ROMELU LUKAKU (Chelsea v Southampton)

After drawing a blank in his previous four outings in all competitions, Romelu Lukaku will be keen to get back among the goals.

Chelsea's record signing will be glad of his next opponents, then: he has nine goals in 12 previous Premier League games against Southampton and has never scored more against a single side in the division.

The Blues have scored six first-half goals in 2021-22 – only Liverpool can match that tally – so an early Lukaku strike may well be on the cards.

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