To Romelu Lukaku, being called "the new Didier Drogba" is no lazy cliché, but the highest praise. The 18-year-old striker was unveiled by Chelsea yesterday and admitted that, until recently, he slept in a Drogba replica shirt and had a poster of him on his bedroom ceiling. He is now training alongside his hero and mentor every day, and describes it as "the best thing that can happen for a youngster".
Globalisation and the Premier League being what they are, it is just as easy for a boy in Antwerp to grow up a Chelsea fan as it is for a boy in London. Lukaku was first won over to Chelsea by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's exploits, shown on Belgian television. Within years, his room was as much of a shrine to Chelsea as any in west London.
"I had two Didier Drogba jerseys: one to sleep in and one to wear when I played in the streets with my friends," he said yesterday. "I had a poster above me of Didier, and a poster on the right of Nicolas Anelka. I'd watch two-minute clips of training on Chelsea TV – my mum thought I was crazy. But you can learn things from those little clips." As recently as November 2009, he "ran out in the street screaming" when Chelsea won 3-0 at Arsenal.
Even before Drogba moved to Stamford Bridge he was a hero of Lukaku's. "When he played for Marseille in 2003/04, I started idolising him," he explained. "We had the same style of play. We had the same hair, the same movements. My favourite number is also 11 – my father played with No 11." Lukaku, however, will have to make do with No 18. The only meaningful difference is that, unlike Drogba, Lukaku is left-footed.
Lukaku's love was only strengthened by a recent school trip to Stamford Bridge. "We visited the dressing rooms, the stands and stuff," he recalled. "My class was going to the dressing room and I stayed on the pitch, just looking. I imagined playing with Drogba. I told the teacher that I'd play here one day, and [when I signed] I called him to say I'd achieved that."
Now training every morning with his heroes, Lukaku admitted a sense of disbelief. "When you're a true fan of the club, to play for them is incredible. Every day you come in here and think 'wow, this is really it'." His partnership with Drogba in training "works all the time" and he is confident of being able to play alongside Drogba, Anelka, or Fernando Torres in Andre Villas-Boas's 4-3-3 system.
But, there is no immediate anticipation of first-team football from the teenager. "For me, as a youngster, it's important to work hard and be ready," Lukaku said. "I want to be the underdog in the team, who works hard in training, comes in on time. It won't be difficult not playing every week. I knew this would be like that. You have to be strong for that. The moment you get to play, you have to show the coach that he can count on you if someone's injured or suspended."
Competition for places will only increase with the imminent arrival of Juan Mata from Valencia, with the club also bidding £16.6m for Porto left-back Alvaro Pereira. Mata's compatriot Oriol Romeu, who joined from Barcelona this summer, said that Mata's arrival was "great news" and expected a swift impact. "I think he will settle in really well," Romeu said. "He's a quality player. He has the technique to make it in the Premier League, and is physically good." Romeu himself is a defensive midfielder, who described himself as having a "more hard-working style" than Xabi Alonso.Reuse content