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Chelsea scrap past a makeshift Arsenal side

Arsenal's Rob Holding, left, challenges for the ball with Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku during the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates stadium in London, England, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ian Walton)
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LONDON (AP) — Social distancing in the Arsenal defense was too inviting for Romelu Lukaku.

Only 15 minutes into his second debut for Chelsea, Lukaku was gifted the space to run and sweep in the goal he’d waited almost a decade to score.

It was an opener — in a 2-0 win over Arsenal in the Premier League on Sunday — that exemplified the hold-up play, timing on the ball and technique Lukaku has finessed in his time away from Chelsea.

How to assess his return to the Chelsea jersey?

“Dominant,” the 28-year-old striker responded.

Never before in its history has Arsenal opened a league campaign with two losses without scoring.

Even worse for Arsenal, the latest defeat came with pandemic capacity restrictions lifted at the Emirates Stadium for the first time in almost 18 months.

There was a lot for home fans to jeer their own side for — and boo they did — and so much to admire from the visitors from west London who so unexpectedly won the Champions League last season.

Even more terrifying for Chelsea’s opponents is having Lukaku to supplement an attack previously lacking a focal point with a scoring touch.

That was seen quickly in north London.

Lukaku held off center back Pablo Mari before laying the ball off to Mateo Kovacic. As the ball was sprayed out to James on the right flank, Lukaku powered his way into the penalty area — brushing aside Mari with ease — to find the pocket of space to receive the pass centrally and tap in past goalkeeper Bernd Leno.

“I wanted to add something different to the team and hopefully I did,” Lukaku said. “The team adapted really well. They helped me a lot. They made life very comfortable for me. So I wasn’t stressed when I came into the game. I was very focused.”

Fortressed by James firing in a goal for himself in the 35th minute after being teed up by Mason Mount, Chelsea and Lukaku cruised to a second straight win.

Only Leno’s fine finger-tip save denied Lukaku a second from a powerful late header.

“I try to improve every time,” Lukaku said. “Now we have to keep working, keep building and get stronger because the Premier League is a very competitive league. But we are ready for the challenge and hopefully we can improve on this.

He’s providing the threat — lacking at times from Timo Werner last season — that could help Chelsea to a first Premier League title since 2017.

“He gives something to our game which we did not have so much, like to protect balls and to play very direct up front, to the last line,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said. “You can not start better than with a goal. He almost scored a second. He assisted some chances, half-chances so a good start.”

All it took for owner Roman Abramovich was committing $135 million for a striker who was offloaded in 2014 after only playing 15 times in his three seasons at Chelsea, two of which were spent on loan, without ever scoring for the west London club.

At 28, Lukaku is more of a complete player than was last seen in the Premier League at Manchester United two years ago, raising his game to lead Inter Milan to the Serie A title last season.

The Belgian is now the most expensive player for combined transfers in the history of the game at almost $400 million, based on fees paid by Everton, Manchester United, Inter Milan and now twice by Chelsea.

“I am very happy with the way he has integrated already,” Tuchel said. “He is a very smart guy, likes to be in the group and is a very democratic leader because he talks to everybody and is very friendly, humble.”

Arsenal, though, can hardly complain about having to face such a costly player. Mikel Arteta has just benefited from $175 million of investment in summer signings — more than any other team in Europe — but nine players are missing through injury and coronavirus infections. And next up in the Premier League on Saturday is Manchester City away at the champions.

“I want a team that wants to fight and face the challenge ahead,” Arteta said. “Hopefully things will get better.”