The sight of Romelu Lukaku up close brings to mind Bill Shankly's invitation to reporters when unveiling centre-back Ron Yeats at Anfield many years ago: "Go on, walk around him." The 20-year-old is built like a heavyweight boxer and the sight of Everton's press officer handing him a new Xbox controller to replace the one he broke in frustration playing a video game recently only enhances the feeling you are dealing with a rare force of nature. "My goalkeeper made an error in the last minute of extra-time and that did it," he recalls with a smile. "I twisted the controls around and it was game over."
Recent real-life opponents have received similarly bruising treatment amid Lukaku's sparkling form for Everton since the striker's deadline-day arrival on a season's loan from Chelsea. He headed the winner after coming off the bench on his debut at West Ham and has not looked back since, making it five goals in as many League games in last Saturday's win at Aston Villa.
His awestruck team-mate Sylvain Distin noted this week that it took him years in a gym to develop a physique like Lukaku's, yet what is equally impressive about the prodigious Belgium striker is his mature outlook. Lukaku knows exactly what he wants, a self-confessed "football freak" who spends hours poring over DVDs of games and players in his quest to become the best. "I observe a lot of great players because if you want to be one of them you have to see how their development as a player happened," he reflects. "What they do on and off the pitch. I try to inspire myself by watching those clips."
Happily, he reveals he has found a kindred spirit in Everton manager Roberto Martinez. "I'm a football freak but he's one as well. Every time I notice something in a game I've seen at the weekend, so has he." He cites a conversation before last week's visit to Villa Park. "I told him I watched [Tottenham striker Roberto] Soldado heading the ball [against Villa] and the cameras gave a view from up in the stands and you could see how much space there was. I said, 'Did you notice?' and he said, 'Yeah, and you have to play like this and like that'."
Lukaku is speaking at Liverpool's Hilton hotel before receiving Everton's September player of the month award. Many good judges scratched their heads when Chelsea loaned him out again, despite his 17 goals for West Bromwich Albion last term, yet Lukaku insists: "It was my decision to leave and I think I made a good choice." There were, he explains, "a lot of teams" interested but conversations with Belgian colleagues Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini helped make up his mind. "I had to challenge myself again, to play in a team that has most of the possession. I had to improve my movement, my skills, my determination. At Everton, it was the stage I was looking for, playing in a team where my team-mates are more experienced. Also Roberto Martinez is playing the Spanish style of football. All those things were attractive."
Lukaku – with power, pace, aerial presence and two good feet – seems the finished product in so many ways that it is easy to forget he is still learning. He completed a full League match just seven times last term and Martinez's words about him being a 90-minute player come to mind when Lukaku mentions the need to "be decisive in the last minutes".
That will surely come. He cites the example of his hero Didier Drogba, whose old Chelsea boots he seems perfectly equipped to step. "When he got older, he got better and better. Some players when they get [to] 29, 30 have arrived at their peak. But he was the best at 32. I ask how, but when you start working with him you see the way he's preparing for games, the way he's training.
"Van Persie is somebody as well," he adds. "He was a player who had a lot of injuries and became an injury-free player and top scorer in the League two years in a row. Those players are quite inspiring. My main ambition is just being the best. At everything. Winning games. Scoring goals at the weekend."
That hunger is certainly helping an Everton side who host Tottenham today on the back of their best start to a season since qualifying for the Champions League in 2004/05. He believes a squad with a "good mix of experienced and upcoming players" should be capable of challenging for Europe, but warns it is early days. "From early March, that's when the race for places in the top starts. We have a great team and a great manager as well, who is ambitious too. But it's November." Spoken like a veteran. At 20. Now that's freakish.
New Tottenham Hotspur centre-half Vlad Chiriches believes Andre Villas-Boas's youth is a value and that the club can win the Premier League under the 36-year-old manager.
The Romania captain joined from Steaua Bucharest for £8.5m as part of Spurs' late transfer flurry, and was immediately impressed by Villas-Boas's approach. "It's good because he's young, he understands us. [We have] enough quality to win the Premier League."
Chiriches sought the advice of Spurs' previous Romanian stars Gheorge Popescu and Ilie Dumitrescu before joining. "[They] told me it was a big club with a big history."
But the move was not strightforward. The Steaua Bucharest owner, Gigi Becali, was so angry at Spurs' attempts to push it through that he reportedly rang demanding the transfer be cancelled.
"There were complications," Chiriches said. "When you see you're so close to a big club and something happens it's a bad feeling... I told them I want to go."
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