Thomas Tuchel defends ‘mentally tired’ Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku

Thomas Tuchel says Romelu Lukaku was dropped from Chelsea’s 2-0 win against Lille in order to take him out of the firing line after a torrid afternoon at Crystal Palace in which he touched the ball only seven times.

The club-record signing spent the entire evening on the bench as a lively Chelsea attack, spearheaded by the excellent Kai Havertz, helped Tuchel’s side to put one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Related: Romelu Lukaku watches from the margins as Chelsea dismantle Lille

Lukaku was widely derided for his performance at Selhurst Park on Saturday and his head coach explained it was time for him to take a “step back” from the starting lineup.

“[It was] not the moment, after the match where everybody was focused on the few touches he had, to put him right away into the next fire,” Tuchel said. “It was the moment to take a step back. That was the decision and you can clearly see we had a strong win. Almost every question is about Romelu. The focus is huge. There are nine other players that didn’t play and we should never forget it is a team sport.”

Tuchel went on to say Lukaku, who he had explained was “a little exhausted” before the match, was not ready to play with the intensity required. “The focus today was on intensity, a high-speed game and also hard work on the ball and, off the ball, to have intense teamwork. Romelu struggled in the last games to deliver that. That’s what I meant when I said he was tired: not only physically tired but mentally tired.”

Havertz opened the scoring with his seventh goal of the season, Christian Pulisic adding the second, and Tuchel said the forward had shown “immense” work rate. He did not know why Lukaku, who was not among the four used substitutes, did not warm down with his teammates after the game and said it was a matter for his fitness staff.

Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech both departed during the second half with injuries and are doubts for the Carabao Cup final against Liverpool on Sunday. Tuchel said he regretted not replacing Kovacic at half-time.