Starry-eyed Lukaku ready to step up
"I packed the night before. I couldn't sleep," Romelu Lukaku said on Wednesday at Chelsea's Surrey training complex, having completed his dream switch to the club he supports. The scene was unusual even for journalists used to the comings and goings of the game, the platitudes about doing one's best and grabbing chances with both hands. Lukaku's fresh sense of wonder filled the room, as he exuded the exhilaration of a lottery winner rather than the defiance of a multi-million-euro Premier League recruit.
It's hard not to be taken in by the fairytale. Early questions about where Lukaku could play in Andre Villas-Boas' preferred front three (answer: "I'll play wherever the coach wants me to") gave way to formation questions of a different kind as the striker was encouraged to describe the layout of posters on the walls of his Chelsea shrine of a bedroom. "Didier [Drogba] on one wall, and Anelka on the wall next to it," he said. Now Lukaku taps his old heroes for tips at every turn. "I always talk with them and they give me advice," he said.
The 'new Drogba' tag is something that has stuck already but, though he takes it as a huge compliment, the 18-year-old is used to it, having been compared to the Ivorian for years. "We were so similar. In style, even the hair... just he was right-footed and I am left-footed." He doesn't think the similarities would prevent the pair forming an effective partnership for Chelsea - "It works in training all the time" - but hopes Drogba can ready him for an eventual succession. "I tell him every day, 'You've got to stay. You got to stay for me'. If I can play with him for two years, two more years - hopefully as long as possible - he can really prepare me for the future."
Stepping away from the physical characteristics, the comparison with Drogba starts to falter. If Chelsea's number 11 seems like a spring chicken for a man of 33, it is perhaps because he was such a late developer. Drogba made his first top-flight appearance just weeks before his 24th birthday; what Lukaku may have done by that age could put him up among the world's elite.
It is not just Lukaku's formidable build that makes one forget he is still is a teenager. The sheer glee of his arrival in longed-for surroundings cannot mask a maturity and ambition that is captivating. His excellent English helps - his fellow arrival, Oriol Romeu from Barcelona, was very much put in the shade by the Belgian's personality, and put an arm around Lukaku at one point and said "es mi profesor" ("he's my teacher"). Lukaku's words were delivered unflinchingly, with certainty. While his father, Roger, insisted that Romelu would stay in Belgium until the end of his schooling, it was always sure that his ambition would pull him away sooner rather than later.
"Anderlecht was a big club and still is, but I wanted to play with really top players every day to continue to progress," Lukaku explained. "For me, the most important thing is to train every day, instead of getting injured and playing the game at the weekend anyway. Now I'm training with world-class players every day, my quality, passing, speed, speed of execution gets automatically better because you have better players around you."
Rarely for a teenager, Lukaku clearly understands the responsibilities that go with the territory - something that will have curried the favour of Villas-Boas, who said in his own debut press conference that he wants his players to set an example. "Chelsea is a club with more media attention [than Anderlecht]," he said, "and you really have to watch out what you do on and off the pitch. A lot of children look at you to be a role model and example."
Frustration in Belgium about the current inability to mould the present crop of young talent into a stellar international team is growing, and the prodigious development of Lukaku and his colleagues sometimes means their tender years are overlooked. Fellow tyro Eden Hazard's harsh two-match ban, handed down by national coach Georges Leekens for stepping outside of the stadium during the game against Turkey in June, is testament to the weight on the shoulders of promising Belgian youngsters. It's something that Lukaku himself has experienced, having been criticised in some quarters back home over a difficult second season.
"For us as youngsters in Belgium, we have a lot of pressure on us," he said under raised eyebrows, still rattling off his personal statistics without missing a beat. "In my first season, I scored 16 times [in the league], and 19 times in 45 appearances, and for a 16-year-old ... you can look around Europe, and nobody [else] did it, so I was very proud about that. The season after, I played 50 games and scored 20 times, and at the end of the season it was like it wasn't enough. I was quite shocked by that, but you just have to go along with it."
This unruffled demeanour will serve Lukaku well at Stamford Bridge. His feted move to Chelsea had become such a running saga back home in Belgium that an opposing player whispered in his ear that Roman Abramovich was in the stands watching as Lukaku limbered up to take a penalty for Anderlecht earlier this season. "I started laughing. But he was joking." The striker's own upbeat mood can't detract from his own focus. Drogba's biggest fan could quickly turn into his biggest rival.