It looks like the next little while is going to be dominated by talk about Kevin de Bruyne. Marc Wilmots has already commented on the youngster's situation, indicating that missing out on playing time could (would) be detrimental to his chances of featuring in the World Cup this summer. Eden Hazard's weighed in, suggesting that a move away from Chelsea might be in de Bruyne's best interests.
As one might expect, a number of clubs are monitoring the situation. While previously, the chatter's all been about a loan move for de Bruyne, Belgian journalist Kristof Terreur seems to be implying that things are going to get a little more serious. He cites three teams interested in signing the 22-year-old, naming Atletico Madrid (who are very familiar with Chelsea's Belgian players), Schalke 04 and Wolfsburg, and there's some suggestion that the Blues might be willing to do a deal.
De Bruyne has almost four years left on his five-and-a-half year deal, so the club is under no obligation to sell him. But the situation is tense regardless. We're very close to the point at which a decision will be made on de Bruyne's future, and that decision will either vindicate Chelsea's recent transfer policy or deal it a hefty blow.
In isolation, it's impossible to have a problem with the idea of snapping up star talents at an early age, letting them develop through loans and then bringing them into the first team. If they're not good enough, they can generally be sold at a profit, and they come cheaply that missing on players (which happens a lot) isn't going to cripple the talent pipeline. Developing young talent is an obvious thing to do, and Chelsea have embraced it wholeheartedly during the Michael Emenalo era.
But critics of the model have long pointed out that unless there's room to break into the first team for the best and brightest of the bunch, it will all amount to more or less nothing. Criticism of the way clubs treat youth players can be deflected when there aren't any youngsters worth playing, but everything will come to a head once we have the talent on hand to actually make a difference. It's not the failures that will determine whether or not Emenalo's plans are working -- it's the elite talents who still can't make an impact.
De Bruyne is obviously one of those talents. If he'd been owned by Werder Bremen last season, dozens of big European teams would be clamouring for his signature, and they'd have had to pay far more than the approximately £7 million the Blues handed Genk in January 2012. As it stood, only Borussia Dortmund felt comfortable with going after a Chelsea player, but when a 21-year-old does well enough in an elite league to catch the eye of one of Europe's best teams, we can be pretty confident that his development is going to plan.
But now that de Bruyne has blossomed into a player capable of thriving in top leagues, what next? If he fails to break through at Chelsea despite everything going right, we have a problem on our hands, because it then becomes even more difficult for us to gauge how ready our loanees are. Everything has gone right for de Bruyne in his first 18 months at the club, and it's still not working.
There's time to turn things around, but for both player and team it's a disturbing malaise.