Thomas Tuchel admitted he took a fitness risk with Romelu Lukaku after the Chelsea striker’s game-changing impact at Aston Villa.
The forward came off the bench at the break with the score locked at 1-1 to inspire the visitors to a 3-1 win on Sunday.
His first Premier League goal since September’s double against Villa put Chelsea ahead and he then won an added-time penalty for Jorginho to score.
It was the Italy midfielder’s second from the spot after he cancelled out Reece James’ own goal in the first half.
Lukaku has been blighted by an ankle injury and then Covid-19 since October and while Chelsea head coach Tuchel was delighted with his impact, he said it was “not fair” to force him back into action for a full half.
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Tuchel said: “It’s not fair today. He [Lukaku] had a very good performance, he was very helpful, but it’s not fair. He’s not ready for that even if he wants it.
“We’ve all been in bed for 10 days with flu. I did not play two days later a match at Villa Park – we don’t know what happens from that. We just put the players in but we don’t know [what the impact is]. He was a game-changer today. I’m super impressed with the guys but I’m super concerned.
“There is no doubt he is super-important. Romelu will be a key player. Last time he started for us was in October, not because of quality or that we have any doubts we are better without him. He is unlucky to get injured.
“When he was struggling to come back in the schedule we have, he caught Covid. It [45 minutes] was more than the fitness and medical department recommended for him but we thought we could take the risk and be more offensive.”
Yet Tuchel admitted his celebrations are tempered because of his concerns surrounding his players’ health, having also lost N’Golo Kante and Thiago Silva to injury.
He said: “It’s a big win but I’m always concerned for the health and safety of the players and that’s why you don’t see me fully excited.
“Normally you could catch huge momentum and push them but the only thing we are doing is checking on a daily basis who can be pushed.”
Speaking to Sky Sports before his press conference, Tuchel expressed his frustration with officials at the Premier League’s “green table”.
“I am very impressed with my players but super-concerned,” he said.
“Maybe we made a big mistake here letting players play after corona and one or two training sessions. But obviously they [the Premier League] made us play and so we play.
“This cannot be the right way. People at the green table and people in offices take these decisions. This is how it is.”
Redknapp: Lukaku has fired Chelsea back into title race
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Lukaku has hauled Chelsea back into the Premier League title race, says Jamie Redknapp, following the striker’s big impact in the win over Aston Villa.
The Belgian – who has not started any of Chelsea’s last 11 in the league due to injury and illness – was sent on at half-time with the score 1-1. Within 11 minutes he had headed them in front with his first league goal since September. He then capped an eye-catching performance with a driving run to win a late penalty to wrap up a vital three points.
With Manchester City winning earlier on Boxing Day, Chelsea couldn’t afford another slip-up and they are now level on points with second-placed Liverpool – who have a game in hand – and six points behind the defending champions.
It is still a big task for Chelsea to return to top spot after disappointing results in recent weeks, when they have failed to turn dominance into goals. However, Redknapp says that with Lukaku back fit, they are right in the mix.
“Lukaku has single-handedly got his team back in this title race,” said the Sky Sports pundit.
“They needed something, they needed a spark and that’s exactly what he brought. In the first half they were going nowhere fast, the manager was scratching his head thinking ‘what do I do?’.
“The obvious thing was to bring him on, because they struggled so much with Christian Pulisic in the first half as that No 9.
“Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa had bullied Pulisic. It was too easy for them. But when Mings crashed into his goalkeeper a minute after Lukaku came on, they knew they were going to be in a fight for the next 45 minutes. That set the tempo.
“From minute one when he came on he just made such a difference. He added that confidence. Everything started to click.
“You could play from deep, you could play it in behind, he gives you that focal point and you can pop it into him… He gives them something completely different.
“They looked a completely different proposition with him up front and when they can get their best players on the pitch – N’Golo Kante, Lukaku – Chelsea look a much better side. And of course, they’re right in this title race.
“City and Liverpool are right now, for me, the best teams, but Chelsea have to hope City maybe have a blip or things don’t go their way.
“But if Chelsea are to win it, Lukaku is going to play a massive part.”
Lukaku: We are the hunters
Chelsea led the Premier League in the early part of this season but now they must make up ground on Manchester City. However, Lukaku says they will relish their role as ‘hunters’.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the win at Villa, he also referenced his frustration at being stuck on the sidelines.
“I think I needed a performance like this today, it has been difficult as every player wants to play,” he said.
“The manager has his reasons but I kept working hard. Today it was good for us to win, and I am happy with my performance.
“We are the hunters now – we have to chase every game and we have to treat every game like a final now.”
Analysis: Lukaku return gives Chelsea hope
Sky Sports’ Peter Smith:
“Lukaku’s impact at Villa was a reminder of his debut against Arsenal, bringing quality finishing to an all-too-often wasteful Chelsea attack, and pace and power to the frontline.
“His header was his first Premier League goal since September, back when Chelsea won five of the seven league games he has started in this campaign.
“Chelsea only dropped points to Liverpool and Manchester City during that run, and they meet those sides again in back-to-back league games at the start of January. It will be the defining moment in Chelsea’s title challenge.
“With Lukaku fit and finding his form before those blockbusters, Chelsea can believe again.”