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Lukaku Puts Benteke Friendship On Hold

by Matthew Gamble @efc_mattgamble

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Romelu Lukaku is ready to put his friendship with Christian Benteke on hold this Saturday and help Everton to victory at Aston Villa.

The striker is set to meet his international cohort at Villa Park as the seventh-placed Toffees travel to a side six positions below them in the Barclays Premier League table.

Both players have managed four goals in six top-flight appearances so far this term and Lukaku has no intention of leaving the Midlands trailing in his rival's wake.

Speaking exclusively to evertontv, the 20-year-old said: "I will say 'hello' when I see him because that is the respect I have for him. But then it's game time, it's time to win and time to perform. After [that hello] there is no more friends, there is just Aston Villa versus Everton and I hope we can win."

Lukaku first became aware of his compatriot's talents playing in a youth team game for his homeland club Anderlecht, aged 14.

While taking on another of the Premier League's Belgian legion in an Under-17 contest against Racing Genk, Benteke was giving his Under-19 colleagues the run around on a neighbouring pitch.

Before long, the two were coming face-to-face on the same turf, meaning Saturday's meeting will be by no means a first.

"I was in the Under-17s playing against [Chelsea forward] Kevin de Bruyne's Genk side and he [Benteke] was in the Under-19s. That was the first time I noticed him," explained Lukaku.

"The first time I played against him was in the reserves the year after, when I was 15 and he was 18 and already playing in the first team of Genk. They came down with quite a strong team. It was a good game and I played against him at the same level the next year, and then later on when I'd broken into the first team. So we've played each other quite a few times. It's nothing new."

Lukaku's switch from Belgium to England came in 2011, the then 18-year-old joining Chelsea for a fee that would reportedly rise to £17million.

The £7million arrival of Benteke at Villa Park the following August hit fewer headlines, but 19 Premier League goals did plenty to turn heads and saw Benteke move ahead of Lukaku in the pecking order for a number of Belgium's crucial 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

However, a hip injury to the Villa man gave Lukaku a chance to stake his claim in his nation's most recent two matches - one he grasped by netting a brace against Croatia as the Red Devils booked their place at next summer's tournament in Brazil.

Lukaku, though, believes he has learned to be patient through his battle to be Belgium's leading man - and insists the gap between himself and Benteke is now as narrow as ever.

He said: "There is a rivalry but I always like to look at myself first, to try to improve myself and do the best for my team. And if there is competition, it can only improve you as a player. The way he's playing, it has motivated me to do better and show my qualities when I'm playing for Everton.

"I have had to be patient at times. But throughout the last performances with Everton and with the national team, I think it's now a bit equal.

"Am I surprised at what he has done for Aston Villa? Not at all. I expect a lot of things of him. He has done very well for his team and I am happy for him.

"The thing is, I have to continue going. I hope that our team will play well this weekend and also in the upcoming weeks and that I can carry on being decisive for the team."

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