Sports writer Scott Johnson explains how Chelsea's three hottest young talents could slip the net...
While Eden Hazard's influence at Chelsea continues to grow, fellow Belgians Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne are on the outside, looking in.
Lukaku is enjoying an impressive campaign on loan at West Brom, Courtois has been earning rave reviews in his second year at Atletico Madrid, while De Bruyne has shone in a struggling Werder Bremen side. This should bode well for ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs future, but will the soon to be former European champions be willing or able to integrate them in to the side any time soon? IIt may be a case of use them or lose them.
Signed within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 2011, during the brief tenure of Andre Villas-Boas, Lukaku and Courtois were acquired as part of the ill-fated overhaul of an aging team. Significant sums were spent, fees rising to a potential ÃÂ£17m and ÃÂ£8m respectively, for two of EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs brightest teenage prospects. De Bruyne was added in January 2012, shortly before Villas-Boas was dismissed, for a further ÃÂ£7m, but it is not Chelsea that have reaped the benefits thus far.
Lukaku has long been considered a phenomenon in his homeland. Tall, quick and strong, with positional intelligence and excellent aerial ability, he scored 121 goals in 68 games for Lierse before his 13th birthday and netted 131 in 93 games for the Anderlecht youth team. Making his senior debut 11 days after his 16th birthday, he scored 15 goals in 25 starts in his first senior season.
He agreed professional terms at Anderlecht while still at school and his education was subsequently documented for a fly-on-the-wall show entitled Ã¢ÂÂDe School Van LukakuÃ¢ÂÂ (LukakuÃ¢ÂÂs School). On a field trip with his classmates, they visited Stamford Bridge, where Lukaku revealed: Ã¢ÂÂWhat a stadium. If one day in my life I will cry, it will be the day I play here. I love Chelsea.Ã¢ÂÂ He has shed only tears of frustration thus far, claiming he has endured the Ã¢ÂÂworst momentsÃ¢ÂÂ of his career at the club and refused a Champions League medal. "I've not even touched the cup. I don't deserve it because I was not on the list. I don't touch anything I don't deserve.Ã¢ÂÂ
He averaged 32 minutes of playing time in 12 games for Chelsea, but has featured regularly for West Brom and is currently the top-scoring teenager in Europe. With 10 goals in 18 starts, Lukaku has been instrumental in cementing the Baggies in the top half of the table. Hawthorns boss Steve Clarke is keen to agree another loan deal for next season, but has admitted that he expects him to return to Stamford Bridge. Yet Lukaku's immediate future will surely depend on who is appointed ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs next manager.
Villas-Boas signed Lukaku, Ã¢ÂÂeven though our team is competitive enough in that sector of the field." That is no longer the case. Didier Drogba and Daniel Sturridge have since left and Fernando Torres will surely be shipped out this summer if a suitor can be found. Chelsea had the chance to recall Lukaku in January, but instead signed Demba Ba. It is surely a no brainer that he will be recalled in the summer, but regular first-team football is still far from guaranteed, as a new manager is likely to target that area of the team for strengthening.
Courtois has recently admitted his future also remains unclear, revealing: Ã¢ÂÂI was hoping that this week I would find out what will happen but Chelsea have asked for a bit more time, perhaps because they are going to get a new coach. I donÃ¢ÂÂt know what will happen but I will have to wait a little longer before I find out.Ã¢ÂÂ His situation is complicated by the presence of Petr Cech, who has this season returned to the levels of consistency which saw him win so many plaudits in his first four or five years in West London. Still only 30, it is unlikely Cech will be relinquishing his role any time soon, but Courtois is fast becoming one of the finest goalkeepers in Europe and will not return to his parent club to sit on the bench.
Since replacing David De Gea between the sticks at the Vicente CalderÃÂ³n Stadium, Courtois has been a revelation, instrumental in AtleticoÃ¢ÂÂs Europa League win last year and setting a new record of 820 minutes without conceding a goal this year. Six foot, six inches tall, he is an imposing figure and, like Lukaku and De Bruyne, a regular in the national squad. A third year is believed to be agreed in principle with Atletico and a ÃÂ£20m price tag has also been floated. He may prove to be the right man at the wrong time.
Winger De Bruyne was signed from reigning champions Genk and immediately loaned back to the club. In August, he agreed a season-long loan to Bremen and, like Courtois, he has yet to represent his parent club in a competitive fixture. It has been suggested Chelsea may use him as a makeweight in a deal for long-term target Andre Schurrle of Bayer Leverkusen.
Three years ago, ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs U18 side won the FA Youth Cup final. Only four of that side remain at the club, and all of them are currently out on loan. It remains to be seen how many of the U19 side that finished runners up in this seasonÃ¢ÂÂs NextGen series will make the grade, but Lukaku, Courtois and De Bruyne find themselves in a similar position, trying to break in to a side of established internationals.
Chelsea may be tempted to sell the trio in order to help balance the books, with one eye on the Financial Fair Play regulations, but they may live to regret it should the Belgians fulfil their potential elsewhere.