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Jul 4, 2014

Lukaku, De Bruyne make the most of their second chances

ESPN FC's Rafael Reis speaks about Belgium and how ready they are to face Argentina.

The nice thing about being young, talented and rich is that this game affords you second chances. You just need a bit of patience and self-belief. They'll come and then it's up to you to take them.

Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne are the double act that sunk Jurgen Klinsmann's United States on Tuesday. They'll get a shot at doing the same to Lionel Messi's Argentina on Saturday (though Lukaku is not guaranteed to start).

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De Bruyne turned 23 last week, Lukaku 21 in May. Yet even in their brief careers they've had ups and downs worthy of Space Mountain. And ironically, both of their dips have coincided with crossing the same guy: Jose Mourinho.

Both were precocious talents who made their Belgian league debuts early. De Bruyne was 17 when he first featured for Genk. Lukaku was just 16 years and 11 days old when he came on for Anderlecht in the playoff for the Belgian league title against Standard.

Lukaku and De Bruyne both struggled at Chelsea but are thriving for Belgium.
Lukaku and De Bruyne both struggled at Chelsea but are thriving for Belgium.

Both were acquired by Chelsea for a combined fee somewhere north of $35 million; Lukaku in August 2011, De Bruyne in January 2012 (though Chelsea allowed him to finish out the season with Genk). Between them, they've been Chelsea players for five seasons. Incredibly, they've combined for just three Premier League starts (two for De Bruyne, one for Lukaku) in that time.

One way or another, they simply haven't fit in at Stamford Bridge. Lukaku had a rough debut season -- to be fair, he was competing for playing time with Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Salomon Kalou and Fernando Torres -- and was then loaned out first to West Brom, where he notched 17 league goals, and then, this past year, to Everton, where he racked up 15.

De Bruyne arrived at the end of the 2011-12 campaign and was packed off almost straightaway to Werder Bremen. He returned in the summer of 2013 and the season started brightly as he featured in three of Chelsea's first five league matches. Then he disappeared from the matchday squad, reappearing only long enough to be sold to Wolfsburg in January.

Mourinho accused De Bruyne of not working hard enough. Lukaku also endured barbs from the Special One, who suggested in November that the Belgian striker had misled fans about his desire to stay at the club.

Lukaku is still a Chelsea player, though for how much longer remains to be seen. His contract expires in 2016 and if he doesn't extend his deal -- and, frankly, why would he want to? -- he'll likely be sold or loaned out again.

It's not surprising per se that two players capable of powering their country to a World Cup quarterfinal should be such marginal figures at the club that actually owned them. It is somewhat perplexing that neither got a serious look-in. (And no, you can't blame it all on Mourinho, either.)

De Bruyne has been trusted to play a crucial role for Belgium and so far, he's repaid that faith.
De Bruyne has been trusted to play a crucial role for Belgium and so far, he's repaid that faith.

In some ways, they epitomize the state of the modern game and the issue of big clubs stockpiling talent. At times it feels as if the big boys, thanks to their enormous financial advantage, simply chuck as much as they can against the wall and see what sticks. If they mature quickly enough to have an immediate impact, great. If not, you sell them off, and because you've used your economic clout to cherry-pick the best talent out there, odds are you won't suffer too big a loss.

In fact, with these two, Chelsea are laughing all the way to their local financial institution. De Bruyne moved for $25 million -- more than twice what Chelsea paid for him. Lukaku should comfortably fetch somewhere north of $40 million (possibly considerably more), provided he either extends his contract or is sold this summer. Great business, return approaching 100 percent; a masterstroke by Chelsea.

Or was it?

It probably was. From the players' perspective, though, you're not so sure. For De Bruyne, what must it have felt like in December when your own manager was talking you down? Would you get a shot at the World Cup? What if the criticism was going to be enough to sink your move?

Lukaku's done nothing but score goals for club and country despite failing to impress Mourinho.
Lukaku's done nothing but score goals for club and country despite failing to impress Mourinho.

Same goes for Lukaku. It's great to bang in goals at Everton and West Brom but you're a Chelsea player and it's being made clear to you there is no future at Stamford Bridge for you. At least under the current regime.

And -- let's be clear -- it's not as if Mourinho is doing this because he's petty or spiteful. His job is to put Chelsea in the best possible position to succeed and if he genuinely believed that these two don't fit the bill -- remember, he felt the same way about Juan Mata and David Luiz, it's not personal -- he has every right to do what he believes is best. After all, it's him on the line if things don't work out.

ArgentinaArgentina
BelgiumBelgium
1
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Match 60
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Still, it's one thing to have your ability questioned. But when it's your work ethic or character that's under scrutiny, well ... that's a lot to take on board at such a young age.

Belgium has offered respite. Coach Marc Wilmots trusted De Bruyne with a role in the No. 10 hole (and, lest we forget, he has a certain Eden Hazard who can -- and has -- played that position to much acclaim while at Lille), and he has repaid that confidence. Christian Benteke's injury paved the way for Lukaku, and while his first two outings were disappointing (a lingering ankle problem hasn't helped matters), you feel he's ready to regain his spot in the lineup.

Second chances: if you're young enough and hungry enough, this game will offer you plenty. It's up to you to seize them, and these two look to be doing just that.

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.