It was December of 1398, and Amir Timur had an elephant problem. Asia's last great conqueror — known to posterity as Tamerlane — had already annexed most of Persia and destroyed the khannate of the Golden Horde, and his attentions were now fixed firmly on the Delhi Sultanate.
Ninety-thousand men had crossed the Oxus river with him in spring, and Tamerlane's army was barely diminished in strength by the time they encountered Sultan Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq.
But the Tartars of the steppes, veterans of rapacious campaigns that had left dozens of cities razed and hundred of thousands of men, women and children dead, knew that they were completely unprepared for what confronted them on the Indian plains.
The Sultan and his allies had taken to the field with dozens of seemingly invincible beasts, clad in steel armor and carrying tusk-mounted scimitars that dripped fatal poison. Their crew, perched in protected turrets, carried archers, crossbowmen and even flamethrowers.
The elephants were unstoppable, and the Timurid horde, every member of which had managed to overcome the perils of the Hindu Kush, was utterly terrified of encountering them. The brains of even their chiefs were utterly emptied of ardour by the prospect of facing the Sultan in battle.
Tamerlane was, by all accounts, a deeply vicious man. By his order, Herat was once reduced to a pile of smoking rubble decorated by a pyramid made from the skulls of its former inhabitants. The Indian campaign had been marked by a series of atrocious massacres. There's a reason he's remembered less-than-fondly everywhere outside of his native Turkistan — Tamerlane was as monstrous as the elephants his army was so dreading.
But there was another side to the self-styled "Sword of Islam". Tamerlane was also ferociously intelligent and deeply committed to scholarship and the arts. His tactical brilliance had served him superbly through decades of campaigning, and he wasn't about to turn and run here.
Tamerlane summoned his baggage train's animals, taking the camels and loading them with straw and kindling. They formed up behind a thin infantry screen, and the Timurids advanced. They were met by the elephants.
The infantry beat a hasty retreat beyond the reach of the charge. But this withdrawal was planned. As thousands of Tartars streamed to safety, they passed the line of waiting camels, whom they drove towards the elephants with iron bars. And then set alight.
A herd of insane, flaming camels bellowing in pain and galloping manically towards them was quite understandably a source of significant consternation to the poor elephants, who found their charge abruptly halted by what must have looked like something out of dromedary hell. Shaking off their handlers in a mass fit of pachyderm panic, they stampeded back towards their own lines, obliterating their own army in the process.
It was a very, very bad day for Delhi, but Tamerlane had once and for all broken the myth of the invincible elephant.
Unfortunately for the Premier League, setting camels on fire doesn't work so well when one encounters gigantic Belgians with lightning in their boots.
Enter the Kraken
If Romelu Lukaku had been born in the United States, he'd currently be making a name for himself as an elite college athlete, merrily demolishing everyone who came near him on the gridiron.
1.90 metres tall and 101 kg (6'3", 220 lb), the 19-year-old is built more like a tank than a footballer. Born in Antwerp in 1993, the son of Zaire international Roger, Lukaku's obvious physical skills meant that he was singled out by talent scouts from an early age. He joined his local team as a 5-year-old, and moved into the Belgian Pro League with Lierse SK four years later.
At 13, Anderlecht came calling.
RSC Anderlecht are by far the most successful side in Belgian history. In the 104 years since they formed, they've earned 31 league titles and earned a handful of European honours to boot. Thanks to Lierse's relegation in 2006, Lukaku was hoovered up by the giants and sent to the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium to further hone his skills.
As it turns out, they didn't need much honing. Within three years, the teenager had made his first-team debut, coming on as a substitute on May 24, 2009.
His first goal arrived three months later.
One day before Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka fired Chelsea to a 2-0 win at Craven Cottage as Carlo Ancelotti's Blues continued their perfect start to an ultimately triumphant season, Romelu Lukaku, on as a substitute, made a 1-0 Anderlecht lead over Zulte-Waregem safe with an 88th-minute strike.
That was the start of an incredible season for the 16-year-old. Eighteen goals and seven assists later, Lukaku had established himself as one of Belgium's premier strikers — and a darling of Football Manager players around the world.
There was no second-season curse for the big centre forward. 2010/11 saw Lukaku net 20 times. With his contract up in the summer of 2012, Europe was on high alert for this up-and-coming talent. But Chelsea, mostly thanks to Drogba, the teenager's favourite player, were always in pole position to secure his services, and after protracted negotiations Lukaku arrived at Stamford Bridge.
The cost? £12 million, plus £6 million in add-ons. It was a very steep fee for a player whose highest level of experience was the Jupiler League plus a handful of Europa League group stage matches. Already, there were doubters. The experts pointed out his weaknesses. His finishing was weak. He relied on athleticism to beat over-matched defenders, an advantage he wouldn't have in a more physical league. His passing could use work. He wasn't ready.
There was a lot of truth in those words. Nevertheless, it was virtually impossible not to be impressed by his unveiling at Stamford Bridge in August of 2011.
But if Lukaku's Chelsea career started with a grin, life soon soured for the youngster. The first sign of trouble came on September 2nd, when, to the astonishment of most, he was left off the Blues ultimately successful Champions League squad.
By then he had already made his debut under Andre Villas-Boas, coming on in the 3-1 win over Norwich City — a match marked by an injury to his idol as well as the first sighting of a certain Juan Mata. He also made an appearance in the defeat at Old Trafford before finally getting his first start in what used to be known as the Carling Cup against Fulham.
It didn't go particularly well. While Lukaku demonstrated flashes of brilliance against the Cottagers, he was also far too tentative for someone of his physique and ability. There were flashes there, but nothing like a finished product.
Lukaku clearly needed playing time, which Chelsea, who were juggling playing time for Fernando Torres, Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Salomon Kalou and Daniel Sturridge, weren't able to give him. Worse still, a loan was off the cards. By the end of August, he'd already played for two different sides, the maximum allowed in one season under FIFA rules.
With so many strikers that even the bench was a bridge too far for the Belgian, he was left plying his trade — he might describe it as 'rotting' — in the reserves. Seven goals in nine games comprehensively demonstrated that the reserves were beneath him, but there was nothing to be done. The season, a full year of his development, ended up more or less completely wasted.
It's not difficult to sympathise for Lukaku, despite him being at least a little complicit in his lack of playing time by insisting prior to signing that he wanted to fight for a place at the club rather than going out on loan. And it's fairly safe to say that he wasn't particularly happy about how last year went. The permanent grudge he now claims to hold against Villas-Boas is pretty convincing evidence to that effect.
It was clear — beyond clear — that the current season would be a make-or-break one for the teenager. After what amounted to ignominious failure in his attempt to break into the Chelsea first team, Lukaku needed to find regular playing time or risk failing to reach his full potential.
He made it clear that he was willing to head out on loan at the close of last season, and the club spent much of the summer figuring out a temporary home for a player who looked one failed year away from being a horrendously expensive liability.
Fulham were sounded out and eventually rejected by Michael Emenalo, Martin Jol settling on Dimitar Berbatov as a viable alternative. But West Bromwich Albion, home of both Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long, seemed (to Emenalo, at least) a better choice.
As it turns out, they were.
Lukaku began the season as an option off the bench. In eight of his first 10 appearances, he came on as a substitute, scoring in his first match (and making a fool of Jamie Carragher in the process, much to everyone's delight). He made an impact whenever he appeared — despite finding it difficult to net as a reserve, his energy and power shredded tired defences and gave the Baggies a way into games in which they might have otherwise struggled.
The striker made a significant impression on more than just the centre backs he was manhandling. Steve Clarke, who took over at the Hawthorns following Roy Hodgson's ascension to the national team job, seems to have been deeply impressed by Lukaku's early performances, and rewarded him with increased playing time.
Lukaku responded brilliantly. In six of his eight starts at West Brom, he's found the net. His most impressive performance came in his side's surprise 3-2 loss at Reading, which saw him beat Adam Federici twice, hit the post with a close-range header as well as rattling the crossbar with a superb snapshot.
That the Royals pulled off a shocking late comeback takes will take some of the lustre off the match as far as he's concerned, but that didn't stop observers coming away full of praise for the teenager.
Daniel Wimbush, of Reading blog the Tilehurst End, is one such Lukaku convert:
Lukaku has three goals against us now this season and if yesterday's performance is anything to go by, then Chelsea really don't have very far to look to find the 'new Drogba'. The 'Fridge from Stamford Bridge' as the West Brom fans like to sing, isn't just big and strong but he's quick and more than prepared to put in a shift for the good of the team.
The striker was happy to go all over the pitch to get the ball yesterday, be that going deep, winning long balls or moving out to the flank to battle against the full-backs. When he did get the ball, you were fearful as he just looked capable of doing something out of nothing and should really have had a hat-trick. Lukaku obviously has some refinement to do, but if he maintains that work ethic and level of technical ability, Chelsea have got a real, real talent on their books.
As well he might be. Lukaku's time at Chelsea was disappointing, with his physique underused and his technique — whether that be shooting, passing or close control — sorely lacking. But with the Baggies, he's blossomed into a far more complete player than we saw at Stamford Bridge. His hold-up play now jives with his athleticism, and his intelligent, aggressive runs have made him almost impossible to mark, especially when combined with the searching vision of James Morrison on the Albion left.
With nine goals so far this season, Lukaku is tied for eighth in the Premier League scoring charts. But goals alone don't tell the whole story. Thanks to the Belgian's early-season stint on the bench, his playing time has been severely limited compared to most of his competitors in the scoring charts. Only Manchester City's Edin Dzeko has seen less Premier League play than Lukaku.
And that means he's in elite territory when it comes to actual strike rate. Out of the nine players with nine goals or more, Lukaku sits third in terms of minutes per goal. Only Dzeko and Robin van Persie (and the latter just barely) beat that figure out — the 19-year-old is even eclipsing the likes of Luis Suarez and Demba Ba.
Lukaku's year has been statistically superb, and his play meshes with the numbers. After zero goals in his first season in England, he's roaring up the Premier League scoring charts as a 19-year-old, bringing to mind the sort of form he displayed at Anderlecht. He began his time at West Brom as a player with some huge question marks hanging over his head and is well on his way to developing into an elite centre forward.
The Future Beckons
The year-long occlusion of Romelu Lukaku's star looks to be well and truly over. He's blessed with so much raw talent that it's very difficult to imagine his ceiling. He's stronger than virtually every centre forward in football, he's incredibly fast for his size, and with his technique rapidly improving he's becoming a threat that few defences are able to entirely contain.
He's also young enough that we have every expectations of significant improvement. His finishing and awareness can and will improve. It's certainly not impossible to imagine him as the heir apparent to Didier Drogba — while he's not yet blessed with the experience and cool that the Chelsea legend brought to the table, he's faster and arguably stronger than the Ivorian whom he so idolised growing up.
But he's not there yet. While Lukaku's already a good player, most of his value lies in his seemingly limitless potential. And potential can be a rather dangerous intoxicant, especially if a player gets an overblown sense of his own worth and refuses to work hard enough to reach it. While Lukaku present is already a well-above-average Premier League player, he'll have to will himself to the next level if he wants to make it as a world-class centre forward.
Fortunately, Lukaku's work ethic is not in doubt. A rather more unhappy development for Chelsea, however, is the suggestion that the teenager has doubts over making it at the club. Recent quotes regarding his future are at least a little bit worrisome, with Lukaku going so far as to claim he hopes for another year at West Bromwich Albion and that he "doesn't care" about the current goings on at his parent club.
While a long-term move to the Hawthorns is profoundly unlikely if Lukaku's development continues along this path — West Brom simply don't have the money to buy a still-under-contract star player from Chelsea — the Blues will have to demonstrate that they consider the striker a significant part of the future, and they'll have to do so soon.
The rest of the season should prove pivotal. There's every chance that Lukaku demonstrates he has what it takes to play as Demba Ba's primary understudy next year, and if he does so a recall and significant minutes will presumably cement him as a Blue for years to come. Until that happens, his Chelsea future is in doubt.
But as for his future as a footballer... well, if you watch West Brom on a regular basis, you'll see enough flashes that nobody would blame you for thinking that it's already arrived.
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