The trail of bright young stars who have been through Chelsea in the last seven years, signed from all over the country and all over the world, is one of modern English football’s most unusual phenomena. They have come at great expense from Europe and South America, Yorkshire and Kent, assigned to the academy or occasionally the first-team squad and many have simply faded away.
You could argue that of all of them, Romelu Lukaku had the greatest pressure of all because, at the age of 18, he came with a reputation as a prodigious goalscorer in Belgium’s Jupiler League on a deal worth £18m. He had been Anderlecht’s top goalscorer for the two previous seasons, the youngest player at the club ever to achieve that. He started the 2011-12 season at Anderlecht, which meant that he could not go out on loan once he had joined Chelsea and subsequently all but disappeared.
Having made just 12 appearances in his first season, Lukaku, still yet to score for the club in a competitive game, did not even help raise the Champions League trophy in Munich because he felt he was unworthy of the honour. There were mutterings of discontent before he was shipped out to West Bromwich Albion on loan and re-launched in spectacular fashion with 17 league goals last season, nine more than Fernando Torres scored.
From Europe’s most sought-after teenage centre-forward to the man currently leading the line for Jose Mourinho’s new Chelsea on the club’s Asia tour – albeit in a squad without Torres – has been a long journey. Lukaku was a sensation in Belgium but in many respects he has had to start over again and only now is he in a position to look ahead to a new season as a Chelsea player with optimism.
Mourinho likes the player and has not been afraid to say so, especially when he was trying to sign him in his Real Madrid days. He talks about Lukaku as a player he can mould and in his most extensive interview last week, referred to Torres as an “end product” – and it did not sound like a compliment. Lukaku, 20, is at the vanguard of the new Chelsea generation, those such as André Schürrle, Kevin de Bruyne, Tomás Kalas and, eventually Nathaniel Chalobah whom Mourinho is challenging to step up to the mark.
Chalobah, Mourinho says, will go out on loan next season “for the last time”, most likely to a Premier League club. So too, Josh McEachran, although he has not been talked up by Mourinho to the same extent. Kalas and Lukaku will stay and the latter the club have resolved privately to keep even if they sign Wayne Rooney. If that deal goes through, it will be either Torres or Demba Ba who departs in order to thin out the strikers.
Lukaku has two goals in two games on tour already, his second in the suffocating heat of Sunday night at the Shah Alam stadium in Kuala Lumpur, an accomplished finish in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The player himself said afterwards that he was responding to his new manager. “He is very direct and in your face – and I love that,” Lukaku said. “It is important. If he has something to say to you, he says it. That is a good thing.”
Mourinho may have to explain to Lukaku where he will fit into his plans should Rooney arrive. Rooney would not accept a move if he thought it was to play second fiddle to a 20-year-old in his first proper season at the club. It will be the Englishman who starts big games – Mourinho’s man to play, as he says, in the “compact areas” – and Lukaku who can break down the teams who leave space in behind.
Asked about the possibility of Rooney joining, Lukaku said: “You know when you are playing for a team like Chelsea, there is going to be competition. I liked the competition from the first time I came here. Obviously, it is the manager’s choice. You have to accept that you have to work hard to make it a successful squad. If he [Rooney] is part of our team I will welcome him with open arms.”
There is such a significant Belgian contingent in the Chelsea first-team squad now with Lukaku, Eden Hazard and De Bruyne – with Thibaut Courtois on loan – that one of the Belgian newspapers have dispatched a correspondent to follow them around Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, where they arrive today. De Bruyne went back to London yesterday for a scan on his knee injury, although the club do not expect it to be serious.
Lukaku is a confident lad, and as one who was dominating defences in the Belgian top flight at the age of 16 he probably has every right to be. “I can score with both feet and with my head, I am very quick and skilful,” he said. “I can do a bit of everything but I can improve on things as well.”
Asked why Mourinho felt he could not operate naturally against sides that compress the play, he said: “One day that will change. He is the manager and he has a vision of the way he wants to play. The players have to improve to do that. I certainly have it in me.” The biggest thing in his favour is that Mourinho likes him and Torres, who joins up on Sunday, is still yet to make a first impression on the new manager.