Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let me start with this rather bold declaration – of all the strikers currently in the Premier League, Romelu Lukaku has the best chance of any to eventually breach Alan Shearer’s seemingly unbreakable 260-goal, all-time top scorer record.
Indeed, whilst a 28 year-old Wayne Rooney lays still 87 strikes short, Robin van Persie remains 126 goals behind and the rest of the top 40, barring Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Darren Bent and Emmanuel Adebayor, have all retired, the 21 year-old Chelsea striker has claimed 32 goals in his last 66 Premier League appearances.
Interestingly enough, none of the Belgium international’s goals have come for his parent club. The impressive one-in-two ratio has been created through loan spells at West Brom and Everton, with Lukaku verging upon talisman status for both Premier League sides.
And after two campaigns of proficient form, many have called for the 6 foot 3 forward to be handed a significant role at Stamford Bridge next season. It certainly feels like ‘use it or lose it’ time is fast approaching, with Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal, Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, to name a few, keen to take Lukaku off Chelsea’s hands and pay a premium rate for the privilege.
Yet, despite my adoration for the Belgian prodigy, one lingering concern still persists – Lukaku has more than proved he’s too much to handle for the Premier League’s rank and file sides, but is he ready to ply his trade at Chelsea’s level?
My caution grows from Belgium’s lukewarm World Cup campaign – a campaign that Lukaku, one of the rising stars of European football, should have been a major part of.
One can question the Red Devils’ functionality; for all their impressive Premier League talent – Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen to name a few- Belgium appeared philosophically flawed. They struggled to move the ball effectively through the middle of the pitch, and with two centre-halves at full-back, lacked quality and natural width going forward. Despite winning four of their five World Cup fixtures, none of Belgium’s performances were particularly pleasing or suggested a side on the cusp of greatness.
But the fact Lukaku was replaced after two games by rookie forward Divock Origi – a striker who wasn’t even included in Marc Wilmots’ 23-man squad until Christian Benteke pulled out with injury – tells its own, troubling story.
The Blues hotshot finished the tournament with just one goal in four appearances, averaging only 1.5 shots and nine passes per match. Even his 0.8 successful aerial duels per match, for a striker of such prowess in the air, natural power and height, is exceptionally disappointing, especially considering Belgium’s style of play was on the whole, attritional and direct.
Furthermore, this isn’t the first time Lukaku has struggled under the weight of the big stage. To cast your minds back to last summer, the then-20 year-old missed the deciding penalty in a shoot-out against Bayern Munich in the European Super Cup final. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a matter of days later, Lukaku forced a late loan move to Everton, allegedly due to a lack of assurances over first team football.
Combine that with the fact Lukaku has failed to score in 15 appearances across all competitions for his parent side, and one has to consider whether the striker can handle the pressures of a major club.
Although Lukaku’s reputation as a worldly prodigy has always preceded him, at West Brom and Everton, it was exceptionally easy to exceed expectations. Few anticipated immediate fireworks from a Premier League novice, and dominant displays were met with a wave of surprise adoration.
Chelsea however are a different proposition all together. Even for a major club, Roman Abramovich’s insistence upon repetitive short-term success, his fly-or-die, trigger-happy mentality, means that standards at Stamford Bridge have become exceptionally high. Although a sensational talent, in my opinion at least, Lukaku still lacks the maturity required to shoulder such pressures, with his disappointing World Cup displays the latest evidence to suggest this.
Not that Lukaku’s shortcomings on the big occasions can’t be addressed with time and further experience – it’s often forgotten that the Belgium international is still just two months gone of his 21st birthday. Furthermore, should he transition his ability to find the net against the Premier League’s more ordinary opposition to Stamford Bridge next term, he will have already remedied arguably Chelsea’s most intrinsic flaw from last season.
But when will Lukaku’s breakthrough on the biggest stages – the Premier League title race, the Champions League, the international scene – finally commence? When he’s 24? 25? or at the next World Cup? As we can tell from his all-but-confirmed acquisition of £32million Atletico striker Diego Costa, Jose Mourinho isn’t prepared to wait that long.