It's the tears that speak to you. More than the drama, more than the quality of the goal, it's the tears at the end of it all: Romelu Lukaku, standing there in the middle of the pitch, hands on his knees, head bent, serenaded by a sold-out Olimpico, crying on the shoulders of Jose Mourinho.
That Lukaku has become a pantomime villain, a favourite of online trolls is no big secret. His 376 goals for club and country across a decade and a half have been forgotten, or even worse, dismissed. He'd never really settled down at one club and had alienated many a fan with his remarks or transfer ambitions.
He had been whistled and abused and booed incessantly on his return to Internazionale last week, fans turning on him for reportedly going behind Inter's back to try and negotiate a deal with hated rivals Juventus. He had spent most of the summer wondering if he'd have a club to play at in Europe, his parent club Chelsea desperate to loan him out, suitors not exactly queuing up. He had become a walking, talking meme and no one wanted any part.
Till an old friend turned up. Jose Mourinho had coached him at Chelsea, and at Manchester United, and was desperate for a striker to fill a big hole up top at AS Roma. Lukaku had started well enough, scoring 5 in 10 Serie A appearances and a goal in each of Roma's three Europa League matches; but then came Inter and the whistling.
And then against Leece on Sunday, a fourth-minute penalty miss. It wasn't just the miss, his first ever in Serie A, it was the nature of it: a weak shot hit straight down the middle that was easier for the keeper to save than not. Suddenly you could see the memes return, the jokes, the 'OMG how could he miss from there' gifs.
Romelu Lukaku missed a penalty in the fifth minute but ended up winning the match for Roma in the 94th minute ��
Look at what it means �� pic.twitter.com/vNDqN8k5S4
- ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 5, 2023
The match played out like it had a personal agenda against Lukaku for 90 minutes. Roma continued to dominate after that early penalty award without really unduly troubling Wladimiro Falcone in the Lecce goal. In the 71st minute, very much against the run of play, Pontus Almqvist smashed home the opener to give Lecce the lead. They held on to that lead well too till regulation time - the closest Roma came in that period was when Paolo Dybala caressed a shot just wide after good hold-up play from Lukaku.
In the 91st minute Nicola Zalewski went on a marauding run down the left before flinging a cross in that was thundered in by Sardar Azmoun for his debut Roma goal. The Olimpico exploded, only to find an even higher decibel range three minutes later.
Dybala slid in a ball to Lukaku's feet, the big Belgian received it on the half turn while comfortably keeping Federico Baschirotto away from it. He then accelerated into the box where another strong arm kept Antonio Gallo from coming close to making a tackle of any sort. Then, time seemed to slow down as, in that awkward fashion of his, Lukaku dug the ball from under his feet to finish brilliantly into the bottom far corner. It was the kind of goal he has scored time and again, his footballing intelligence and sheer physical strength combining to provide an opening where previously there was none.
Cue bedlam in the stands, cue the whistle, cue the tears.
Mourinho would tell DAZN after the match, "[This was Lukaku's] first [penalty miss] in Italy and second with me. It was the European Super Cup with Chelsea but only those who shoot make mistakes. I'm never sad with those who make mistakes. Romelu shot and we have great confidence in him."
"He is emotional, I know him better than anyone. He is very sensitive and when he misses a penalty, afterwards his heart cries and his soul cries. Having the chance to score the winning goal couldn't have been better for me because he won the team and Romelu sleeps better. He has a big heart," he added.
From minute 4 to minute 94, the memes turned to posters, the online toxicity replaced by the overwhelming love of a packed stadium. And for that, Romelu Lukaku's winner - and his post-match reaction - is ESPN India's moment of the week.