Red Devils' blindside leaves a blue feeling

LONDON • Not for the first time, Chelsea have made a rather undistinguished start in attempting to capitalise upon their status as champions.

Suggestions that Romelu Lukaku has decided to move to Manchester United have left the London football club winded. Perplexed, even.

All summer, the assumption had been that the Belgian's innate desire to return to Stamford Bridge would be key to securing the striker from Everton.

But somehow, maybe due to their complacency or possibly the influence of the player's agent, Mino Raiola, they have been bypassed.

There may be public attempts to dismiss this failure as insignificant and an insistence that the man they sign to replace Diego Costa - Real Madrid's Alvaro Morata, Andrea Belotti from Torino or even an Alexis Sanchez or Sergio Aguero from a direct Premier League rival - had always been their first choice.

But the reality is that manager Antonio Conte had been pinning his hopes on Lukaku leading the line.

Those reports in Belgium, that the Chelsea manager had been in regular contact with the Everton forward over recent weeks, detailing his tactics for next season and making plain just how key he considered the forward to his game plan, have never been contested.

Now Conte will stride back into his office at Cobham tomorrow, 24 hours before the first team are due back for pre-season training, demanding an explanation for the board's apparent inertia over recent weeks.

Sources in Italy, while aware the manager is distinctly unimpressed with the summer's business to date, do not believe his sense of exasperation will prompt a resignation, though that contract extension, which has been on the table for months, remains unsigned. Instead, he will require answers.

Why was a formal bid for Lukaku, a player the manager had made clear should be targeted, never submitted to Everton?

What is the hold-up on the medicals delaying the arrivals of Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco and Antonio Rudiger from Roma? And the state of play on negotiations for Juventus' Alex Sandro?

Big-money transfers can be tediously protracted and complicated, but it is too simplistic to suggest the club are waiting to shelve the Adidas training gear and parade an array of signings in a glittering Nike kit.

The manager had hoped the bulk of the buying would be done early so he could blood them into the gruelling routine of double training sessions, and settle them into a squad who depart for a three-game tour of China and Singapore on July 18.

Some should have arrived by then - Bakayoko and Rudiger are close - but the prospect of Chelsea departing for their Asian tour with Michy Batshuayi, a bit-part player last term, as their principal forward is suddenly very real.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'Red Devils' blindside leaves a blue feeling'. Print Edition | Subscribe