If you've been impressed by Slobodan Rajkovic's performance in the pre-season, you're not alone. The 22-year-old centre half has done a superb job for Chelsea on their Asian tour in the absence of David Luiz and Alex, and questions are starting to be raised about whether he's got enough quality to make it into the first team on his own merits. Unfortunately for Rajkovic, that question seems rather beside the point.
For Rajkovic hails from Serbia, which means he needs a work permit to play in England. He hasn't got one - he needs to have played in 75% of the country's international matches for the past two years, and that would have required breaking past Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic as well as Borussia Dortmund's Neven Subotic on a regular basis as a 20-year-old. Rajkovic meeting the international requirements is simply not going to happen anytime soon, and he knows it:
Like you know I cannot play in England but if I can keep at this level, play for my national team and I can expect to play as soon as possible here. But this year I think I will need to go on loan somewhere, probably in Holland again but it depends on people in the club, so when we go back to London we will try to sort something out.
-Slobodan Rajkovic. Source: ChelseaFC.com
There's talk of Rajkovic applying for Dutch citizenship, where he's spent the past five years. This would allow him to work in England (as the Netherlands are, of course, a member of the European Union). One would have to imagine that this would take some time, which that would necessitate him playing elsewhere for another season. Obviously, that's not particularly useful to Chelsea this year. Andre Villas-Boas, however, has an entirely different plan:
I think that Rajko deserves a chance with a hearing panel. He has shown his qualities throughout all this pre-season...
The most important thing for Rajko and his future is for him to get this panel hearing because I think his talent is good enough for the Premier League. Let's do it step by step and hopefully enough we will be able to convince the panel that Rajkovic deserves a chance in the Premier League.
The 75% requirement isn't the only way to get a work permit. Rajkovic can actually request a special hearing to see whether he's worthy of plying his trade in England, and it sounds like that's the course the club are going to take. I would suggest that being on Chelsea's 25-man roster should be enough to demonstrate his ability to make a contribution to the game, and I have no doubt that the Blues could argue "Rajko's" case very well indeed.
This is interesting, because I think we'd all assumed that no matter how assured Rajkovic looked, he'd be sent back on loan thanks to the permit issues. If he manages to secure and win a hearing, suddenly Chelsea's centre back situation looks very different, with a competent home-grown centre half ready to step into the 4th-choice role. This would, in turn, free Alex up for a potential sale when, in a non-Rajkovic world, losing him would have badly hurt the depth required to sustain an often-ailing John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic as first-choice right back.
Of course, these hearings take not inconsiderable time, and it seems unlikely that Rajkovic could get a work permit in time for Chelsea to swing a deal with, say, Bayern Munich. But if a date is set, keep a close eye on things. The result could well have an effect on more than just whether or not one of the club's top young talents is allowed to play in the country.