José Mourinho faces a fight to persuade Romelu Lukaku to stay at Chelsea next season, with the £18m Belgium striker believed to favour another loan deal in search of the regular games he feels he needs before the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
Chelsea's new manager has been confronted by an extensive to-do list and a part of it concerns the futures of the returning loanees, including Michael Essien, who featured to such good effect under Mourinho at Real Madrid last season. Essien has two years to run on his Stamford Bridge contract and is expected, once again, to be an integral part of Mourinho's squad having excelled during his first spell at Chelsea.
Lukaku's situation, though, is delicate. The 20-year-old striker endured a frustrating debut season at Stamford Bridge in 2011-12, after a transfer from Anderlecht, when he struggled for opportunities and failed to score. But he revelled in what was a fresh start last time out – on a season-long loan at West Bromwich Albion, where he scored 17 Premier League goals – and he would be loth to return to the role of bit-part player. A talented Belgium squad have high hopes for next year's finals.
Lukaku fears that Mourinho would like to upgrade his options up front and the most difficult scenario for the striker would be if the club were to sign a marquee name such as Edinson Cavani from Napoli or Hulk from Zenit St Petersburg: both are long-standing Chelsea targets. Lukaku is determined to play every week and, according to sources in Belgium, would be receptive to a loan in the Premier League or Bundesliga, where Borussia Dortmund want him, ideally with a club who will play in European competition.
Mourinho has always liked Lukaku. He was linked with him at Madrid and spoke in glowing terms about the player when Real had a pre-season friendly at Standard Liège in 2010. It remains to be seen whether the new manager can give him the assurances that he needs.
Mourinho is looking forward to working with and on Lukaku during the club's pre-season tour of Asia and the United States, to which many of the club's returning loanees are, at present, scheduled to travel. Essien's return could be a boon; Mourinho knows how to get the best from a player who needed first-team football to help him back from serious knee trouble. But doubts surround the futures of the other players loaned last season.
Kevin De Bruyne, who is yet to appear for Chelsea and caught the eye at Werder Bremen, has offers from Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, and he appears determined to secure a permanent transfer to Dortmund. Chelsea, though, are pressing him towards Leverkusen as part of an exchange for the £20m-rated striker André Schürrle.
Thibaut Courtois, the goalkeeper, is set to renew his loan with Atlético Madrid for another year; he has already spent two seasons at the Spanish club with great success. There are those at Chelsea who consider Courtois to be Petr Cech's long-term successor but Mourinho will persist with Cech, with whom he has a close relationship. Cech was one of the pillars of Mourinho's title-winning team at Chelsea.
Josh McEachran is resolved to impress for England at the Under-21 European Championship in Israel and then for Mourinho in pre-season before he considers his next move. The midfielder spent last term profitably at Middlesbrough but may now benefit from a Premier League loan. Thorgan Hazard, who played for Zulte Waregem in Belgium last season, is a loan target for Anderlecht and Genk.
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