When a top-level coach describes one of his emerging prospects as having "everything a young player should have", it is generally worth taking note. When that man is Jose Mourinho, the words take on added significance.
Inter Milan’s Portuguese coach is not renowned for lavishing praise on youngsters but, in Rene Krhin, he sees something out of the ordinary. Nor is he alone in this. Indeed, the Slovenian teenager was the subject of a titanic tug-of-war before agreeing a new contract with the Italian champions at the turn of the year, with Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all reportedly willing to pay £7m to prise him from the San Siro.
Krhin’s power, athleticism and technical ability have also caught the eye of his international coach. Matjaz Kek has been anxious to carefully nurture the Inter prodigy, but nonetheless recognises that his country’s best prospect cannot be kept under wraps for long. Kek chose Wembley as the stage on which to hand Krhin his Slovenia debut last September and, having provided an impressive cameo, the 19-year-old duly went on to make his senior bow for I Nerazzurri the following week.
"That was a very special week for me," he later reflected. "You work a whole lifetime for certain experiences and it was a dream come true." This, it was becoming clear, was to be Krhin’s breakthrough season, with his competitive international debut against San Marino a month later further establishing him within the Slovenian squad.
Like everyone in the Balkan nation, Kek had been carefully monitoring the midfielder’s development ever since Inter plucked him from his hometown club Maribor at the tender age of 16. Injuries had disrupted Krhin’s early progress in Milan, but by the summer of 2009 Mourinho had seen enough to select the 6ft 3ins youngster for the first team’s pre-season tour of the USA.
His initial impressions having been confirmed Stateside, the former Chelsea manager assured his young protégé that competitive outings would not be long in coming. And he proved true to his word, as Krhin recalled: "What did Mourinho say to me before I came on [for my debut]? He motivated me and told me again that I have his complete faith.
"He's a fantastic person, he loves the youngsters and he knows how to work and talk with them. He makes you feel part of the group. I like him a lot."
Fortunately for Krhin, the esteem in which he holds his charismatic coach is mutual. "In Rene Krhin I see what I expect from a 19-year old," said Mourinho. "He is really professional with big ambitions, and I'm also very happy with his discipline and talent. I wish him all the best in his career and I will say this once again: Rene has everything that a young player should have."
As with any promising youngster, comparisons to current stars are almost inevitable, and Krhin’s dynamic box-to-box running has seen him likened to another former pupil of Mourinho’s in Frank Lampard. In truth, however, the Slovenian’s range of attributes – pace, power, passing ability and aggression – ensure that he can play a variety of midfield roles, with his Inter coach thought to envisage his long-term future in a more defensive position to the one Lampard has made his own.
Mourinho and Inter were certainly steadfast in resisting interest from England, and offers of co-ownership within Italy, to tie Krhin down to a new four-year deal, although Napoli and Palermo remain keen on taking him on loan next season. His future may well depend on whether Mourinho stays or goes, although he could go a long way towards shaping his own destiny with a starring role at South Africa 2010.
As thing stand, Krhin seems almost certain to begin the tournament on the bench as Kek remains faithful to the players who secured qualification against all the odds. However, the 19-year-old is steadily beginning to make his presence felt at international level and, should he be given the opportunity, don’t bet against him justifying all the hype.
Krhin is not the only teenage Slovenian prodigy at Inter Milan. Highly-rated goalkeeper Vid Belec arrived at the San Siro two weeks before his former Maribor team-mate and is also tipped for a bright future in Italian football.
Despite comparisons to the free-scoring Frank Lampard, Krhin has yet to find the net for either club or country. Could that change in South Africa?
After initially going to school in Milan to learn Italian, Krhin eventually learned the language from his Inter team-mates.
Krhin moved to Inter Milan despite the objections of his mother, who wanted him to stay in Maribor and graduate from high school. “Now she realised I did the right thing,” says the player.