This weekend sees two Belgian centre-forwards meeting up in a Midlands derby. It’s probably the first time this has happened and it’s fair to say that 12 months ago, neither Romelu Lukaku nor Christian Benteke would have been expecting to be playing at the Hawthorns this weekend.
Lukaku was 16 when I first saw him play. He came on as a substitute for Anderlecht in a Champions League qualifier against The New Saints from Wales and scored two goals. Being suitably briefed, I turned to a visiting journalist next to me and said “he’s the future of Belgian football”. I saw him several times since then in an Anderlecht jersey and was never totally convinced. Sure, the boy was – is – young but his first touch was never good and he seemed to be overpowering opponents rather than outwitting them, even at such a young age.
Lukaku was over-hyped by Anderlecht, who saw in him the proverbial pot of gold. I remember one headline where club supremo Herman Van Holsbeeck was quoted as saying Lukaku could fetch 30 million euros on the transfer market. Eventually he was sold for roughly half that amount and his career stalled when the Chelsea coach at the time, André Villas-Boas, decided that Lukaku still had a lot to learn.
Benteke’s career to-date has been almost the mirror image of Lukaku’s as it could be said that the Aston Villa striker was under-hyped while he was in Belgium. He had two spells at Standard Liege and two at Racing Genk. During his second spell at Standard, he was loaned out to Kortrijk – where he was reasonably successful – and then on to KV Mechelen. He learnt about his move to Mechelen, on the last day of the transfer window, while he was training with the Belgian national team and he was not amused. Standard eventually sold the under-used striker on to Genk for roughly £1 million at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season. Technical Director Jean-Francois De Sart has since said they sold him too cheaply and Aston Villa probably paid too much for him.
Whatever, Benteke seemed to appreciate his return to Genk, the club where he had made his professional debut back in 2007 as a 17 year-old. I saw him against Anderlecht in 2012 and he showed some clever touches and looked as if he had a future. I remember thinking that one day he might be the answer to Belgium’s striking problems. However, I thought that would be several years away as, like Lukaku, he looked very raw.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012 and Benteke learns that he has a chance to join the Premier League. He basically went ‘on strike’ just before a Europa League game, saying he didn’t feel like playing for Genk at that time. Since then I have sat in on an interview when he was with the national team and he said he believed that any player would have done the same. He’s probably right.
So Benteke and Lukaku find themselves playing in the same position for two Midlands clubs with similar histories, even if the health of WBA seems to be better at the moment. Lukaku is finding his feet after being seen as a teenage ‘superstar’ while Benteke is surprisingly doing the same after failing to set the world alight at several clubs in Belgium.
Both being 1m 90 (6’ 3”) and extremely well-built, they are similar in style and the Premier League is probably their natural hunting ground. Some people reading this will be more familiar now with both of them as they’ve left the – largely ignored – Jupiler Pro League to play in the biggest and most media-friendly football franchise in the world. The last time I saw Lukaku – on television – he looked to have slimmed down and was much more mobile than in his Anderlecht days. From the little I’ve seen of Benteke, he looks exhausted after his bright start and I saw some recent stats that implied he sees a lot of the ball – usually in the air as it heads towards him.
Benteke is 22 and Lukaku is three years younger. Benteke’s scoring record is roughly a goal every three games, while Lukaku’s is better but not yet a goal every two games. Belgium has had a problem in fielding a proven striker in the national team, someone who can finish of the work of Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele and Dries Mertens in midfield. Either of them could be the answer but I feel that both have a lot more to learn and prove. I wish them well.