Sunday 18 February 2018

Paul Hayward: Chelsea feel Terry's absence on Luiz return

A bloody David Luiz of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool. Photo: Getty
A bloody David Luiz of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool. Photo: Getty

Paul Hayward

The shock of PSG paying £50 million for David Luiz was matched by Chelsea spending £32 million to bring him back.

Those not sold on Luiz's roaming defensive style felt that Chelsea had robbed the bank but felt so guilty they returned 60pc of the cash.

No modern footballer stares into such a gulf between personal achievement and public image. Luiz, now 29, and wearing 30 against Liverpool, is a Champions League winning centre-back who won two consecutive domestic trebles at PSG and was selected for Fifa's world team of the year in 2014, despite featuring in Brazil's 7-1 defeat to Germany in Belo Horizonte.

Yet the popular impression of him is a dilettante who gallops around the field like someone who sees actual defending as a restraint of trade.

He was in trouble half an hour before he returned to Chelsea's colours when Sky television pundits questioned his willingness to tweet so close to the kick-off: "Keep calm and start the countdown." Harmless enough. At least Luiz was excited. And he was not personally culpable when Liverpool took a chainsaw to Chelsea's defence, running up a 2-0 lead before Diego Costa narrowed the deficit after an hour. On the Chelsea side, scrutiny was better directed at Branislav Ivanovic, who was ragged, and Nemanja Matic.

Luiz's version of centre-back play is certainly elegant when it goes right. Within minutes of his "second debut" - if that phrase passes the grammar test - Luiz was chipping a nice diagonal pass on to the chest of Eden Hazard and bamboozling Daniel Sturridge as he dribbled the ball out of defence.

If they groaned in private when he rejoined the club on deadline day (a clear sign that he was not Chelsea's No 1 defensive target), the supporters went the other way when Luiz's name was read out. They cheered a prodigal figure they will always associate with the 2012 Champions League win in Munich. But they could all see the contradiction between Antonio Conte's belief in robust Italian defending and Luiz's nomadic tendencies.

As if to prove how tough he is really, Luiz soon had a bloody nose from a clash of heads with Liverpool's Sadio Mané, who was part of a forward line that would cause any defence problems - even without Roberto Firmino (injured).

The weekend's 4-1 victory over Leicester showed how rich Liverpool are in quick attacking talent. Mané and Sturridge were backed up here by Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho. So any assessment of Luiz's return ought to take account of the quality of the opposition, especially as Ivanovic (right-back) and Gary Cahill (centre-back) have been more up than down over the past 12 months.

Luiz was not directly to blame when a 16th-minute ball to Chelsea's far post found Dejan Lovren, who stroked it in, but Conte's whole back-four were oblivious to the danger of three red shirts appearing behind them.

Conte meanwhile was livid when Jordan Henderson was allowed to strike a Friday night frightener that flew into a top corner of Thibaut Courtois' net.

To this point Chelsea were a remote second best, and defensively suspect, which had less to do with Luiz's presence than John Terry's absence. To Luiz's credit, he went hunting in Liverpool's penalty box at set-pieces.

Whatever he lacks, a winning appetite is not on the list.

He made his Chelsea debut of course five and a half years ago against the same opponents and there have been medals and trophies galore since then.

But there is no escaping the strangeness of his return, given that Conte has spoken about him the way he might a promising 18-year-old. This week the new manager said: "He's worked a lot on defensive situations and when we are in possession. I have confidence in him." When Luiz signed, Conte went further: "If someone thinks that this player loses his concentration during the game, my task is to improve him in that aspect."

In other words, bringing him back was a gamble after Chelsea tried and failed to recruit targets such as Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly and Alessio Romagnoli of Milan.

He was in distinguished company. Didier Drogba, Alan Hudson, Charlie Cooke and Peter Osgood are among the 12 players who returned to Stamford Bridge for a second stint. Luiz, though, left to clean up with PSG in France without having a chance to say goodbye. He told the Chelsea matchday programme: "My relationship with everyone here was always amazing, with everyone working here and with the players, and I can feel the same respect and the same love now." There was love, yes, but there was also an ominous failure by Chelsea to match Liverpool's early energy and eagerness. On this evidence, they are still relying on a 35-year-old centre-back, Terry, to hold the back of the team together.

Nobody could accuse Luiz of returning to an easy life. In France, PSG crushed the domestic opposition. Here, Chelsea's reclaimed centre-back was re-learning how torrid life can be when big-name rivals come to your ground on song. At least Chelsea fought back. Like Jose Mourinho, further north, though, Conte is finding out who the passengers are. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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