What if Chelsea had backed Antonio Conte after his Premier League title win in 2017 and signed van Dijk and Lukaku?

CAN Thomas Tuchel get the best out of Romelu Lukaku?

Can he win Chelsea the Premier League? Can he win them the FA Cup?


And can he eventually leave Stamford Bridge on his own terms, with a whopping pay-off, having outwitted Roman Abramovich?

Because the bloke in the opposition dugout in Wednesday night’s Carabao Cup semi-final has achieved all of these feats.

Tuchel already has a European Cup to his name, after less than a year in charge of Chelsea, so the Blues faithful are hardly wishing away the impressive German.

But that doesn’t stop us contemplating one of the great ‘what ifs?’ in recent Premier League history.

Namely, what if Abramovich had given Antonio Conte what he wanted during the summer of 2017, after the Italian had masterminded a title success in his first season?

What if Chelsea had backed him in his decision to freeze out his turbulent centre-forward Diego Costa, then coughed up Everton’s £75million asking price for Lukaku, rather than spending almost as much on Alvaro Morata?

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And what if Chelsea had carried out Conte’s other request and signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton that same summer?

The Saints were keen not to flog the Dutchman to Liverpool, who had been forced to apologise for making an illegal approach for the centre-back, so Chelsea were in the box seat.

Instead, Chelsea never struck a deal and Van Dijk moved to Anfield the following January.

Conte has since claimed he was “very, very close” to signing Lukaku and Van Dijk, and that those two would have improved his champions by “30 per cent” and kept Chelsea “at the top for many years”.

Had Chelsea strengthened by signing those two players that summer, would Manchester City have dominated to such an extent that they now look dead certs for a fourth title in five seasons?

And would Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have won a Champions League and a Premier League without Van Dijk?

It was not as if Abramovich didn’t spend that summer.

In a disastrous spree, Chelsea shelled out £58m on Morata, £40m on Tiemoue Bakayoko, £35m on Danny Drinkwater and £23m on Davide Zappacosta, as well as the successful signing of Antonio Rudiger.

The following January, Ross Barkley arrived from Everton — a transfer met with open contempt from Conte, who pretty much staged a season-long strop yet still signed off by winning the Cup.

And then Conte won a £26.6m pay-off for himself and his backroom staff after launching a legal claim for unfair dismissal against Chelsea.

Conte, along with Carlo Ancelotti, were the managers Abramovich should never have allowed to get away.

Now Conte is working his meticulous brand of sorcery on Spurs — a team who are suddenly winning matches they might have lost, after years of losing matches they should have won.

And while Conte never got to work with Van Dijk, he did land Lukaku at Inter Milan, winning the title with the Belgian as his leading scorer.

This is where Tuchel’s current headache stems from.

The now infamous Sky Italia interview, in which Lukaku bemoaned his lack of opportunities at Chelsea, was initially agreed as a tear-signed letter to Inter fans.

Lukaku loved his time under Conte at the San Siro but Inter failed to extend his contract, leading to the exits of both manager and striker.

Tuchel adopted a bullish Conte-style approach in dropping Lukaku from his squad for Sunday’s thrilling draw with Liverpool.

And the question now is not so much whether the Chelsea boss will get the best out of his club’s £97.5m record signing, but whether he actually wants to.

As Jose Mourinho told SunSport in June, his former Manchester United striker thrived on being the “top man” at Inter.

Mourinho said of Lukaku: “He’s a big guy, physically so strong, but mentally, he is still a kid. A kid who needs that love, needs that support, needs to feel important.”

Is Tuchel willing to shower Lukaku with love, to make him the focal point of his team and the main man at his club?

And will Tuchel win a title at a club as impatient as Chelsea?

You wouldn’t bet on it.

But while nobody at Stamford Bridge is wishing away Tuchel, they might still welcome back Conte with the question: “What if?”

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