Around that time, one senior figure at Stamford Bridge was discussing their recruitment plans. When it was suggested it would be ‘madness’ to re-sign Lukaku for significantly more than the £28million he had been sold to Everton for just three years earlier, the response was blunt. “We don’t care. We want him.”
Unfortunately for Chelsea, that message did not get through to Lukaku. Rather, it was their hesitancy in paying the £75m that Manchester United put on the table that proved a major factor in convincing the Belgian that Old Trafford was the right move. By the time Chelsea matched that bid, it was too late.
It is a theme of Lukaku’s career that he thrives under managers who believe in him. He chose to leave United after just two seasons when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer focused his attention on the emerging talent of Marcus Rashford and the fitful Anthony Martial ahead of him.
Conte — by then at Inter Milan — left Lukaku in no doubt that he would be valued in Italy and helped the 28-year-old realise his potential as one of the finest strikers in the world.
It is the same story at international level, where his relationship with Belgium manager Roberto Martinez has seen him become his country’s record goal-scorer. So tight is their bond that Martinez would have been confident of luring him to Tottenham as Harry Kane’s replacement had he been appointed Jose Mourinho’s successor this summer.
Thomas Tuchel’s determination to finally bring him back to the club where he was earmarked as the next Didier Drogba when at Chelsea’s academy, convinced him to tell Inter he wanted to go.
The club-record £97.5m fee is proof enough of Tuchel’s faith in him — even if Erling Haaland was Chelsea’s top target — and he knows he is considered the missing piece in what is expected to be a robust challenge to Manchester City’s domestic this season.
Chelsea managed just 25 goals in 19 Premier League games under Tuchel, with their wastefulness so nearly costing them a top-four finish. It is their standout deficiency in comparison to City, who they beat on three separate occasions in the final weeks of the season but trailed by 19 points.
Even playing the majority of the campaign without a striker, Pep Guardiola’s champions scored 83 goals compared with Chelsea’s 58. In the three previous seasons, City scored 102, 95 and 106 respectively. The last time Chelsea outscored them was in Conte’s title-winning campaign, with a return of 85, compared with 80.
Conte wanted to build from a position of strength with the additions of Van Dijk and Lukaku, but got neither of his top two targets, which could be viewed as a sliding doors moment for the Premier League.
No team capitalised on Chelsea’s recruitment failures more than City, who went on to win three of the next four titles. The other went to Liverpool, who signed the centre-back Conte craved most — Van Dijk.
There are no guarantees that Conte would have built a dynasty on the back of buying Lukaku and Van Dijk, but it is notable that Chelsea are taking no chances after Tuchel delivered the biggest club prize — the Champions League — after just four months in the job.
If Lukaku can replicate his form from Italy over the past two seasons — scoring 64 goals in 95 games for Inter — he could be the decisive factor in Chelsea’s pursuit of the title.
The man Conte wanted to keep Guardiola at bay four years ago could now be the man to end the City manager’s era of dominance.