Ruben Loftus-Cheek shows off the weapon Maurizio Sarri cannot ignore in fight for Chelsea midfield berth

During a break in play, not long after Ruben Loftus-Cheek had scored his second goal of the game, Maurizio Sarri beckoned him over to the touchline to administer a flurry of direction. With one hand resting on his back like a favourite uncle and the other pointing furiously at the pitch like a raging school teacher, Sarri made clear he wasn’t entirely happy with something or other; perhaps this is just his way, to be controlling and cajoling, pernickety and precise, but it seemed he was reserving attention for “Loftus”, as he refers to the 22-year-old, like his own personal project.

Three weeks ago, after Lofts-Cheek had impressed in fits and starts against Mol Vidi, Sarri said that he was exceptional technically and physically “but he has to improve from a tactical point of view. I want more from the tactical point of view because we conceded three or four counter-attacks to the opponent.” Clearly then, he remains a work in progress, but what Loftus-Cheek showed he already has in natural flowing supply – more so than just about any other midfielder in the squad – is goal threat.

The stats don’t show it, of course; his hat-trick here in a comprehensive 3-1 win over BATE Borisov were his first Chelsea goals for two years and six months, after a series of injuries and loan moves, but each of his goals on the night were the sort that require a natural eye for it: the sudden dart to the penalty spot while the BATE defence headed the other way; escaping his marker to jab in a corner; bending in his third, hit first-time with the ball bobbling.


Chelsea vs BATE Borisov player ratings





1/11 Kepa – 6

2/11 Davide Zappacosta – 6

3/11 Gary Cahill – 6

4/11 Andreas Christensen – 6

5/11 Emerson – 6

6/11 Mateo Kovacic – 7

7/11 Cesc Fabregas – 7

8/11 Ruben Loftus-Cheek – 9

9/11 Pedro – 6

10/11 Willian – 5

11/11 Olivier Giroud – 5

1/11 Kepa – 6

2/11 Davide Zappacosta – 6

3/11 Gary Cahill – 6

4/11 Andreas Christensen – 6

5/11 Emerson – 6

6/11 Mateo Kovacic – 7

7/11 Cesc Fabregas – 7

8/11 Ruben Loftus-Cheek – 9

9/11 Pedro – 6

10/11 Willian – 5

11/11 Olivier Giroud – 5

On a night like this it is hard to think of many Premier League players so complete as Loftus-Cheek. He’s as strong as Marouane Fellaini, as balanced as David Silva, as gifted on the ball as just about any English player you could name. His physique would not look out of place playing for London Wasps or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, yet he channels it with the poise of an opening batsman.

After a couple of goals here he began to enjoy himself; first there was an indulgent scoop which almost set up Kovacic to score, then a dragback to evaporate the defender, before the weaving runs through traffic like a swaying caravan. Sarri may not have been entirely happy, but it will be hard for him to continue omitting the midfielder from his Premier League thoughts with performances like this.

The task now for Loftus-Cheek is a simple one: they say that to succeed you need to find the person who’s best and be better, and this is how he must approach his fight for a starting spot. Right now Ross Barkley is ahead in the pecking order and it is hard to resist the comparison between them, a pair of young Englishman with similar attributes and similar falabilities – primarily staying fit.

This may ultimately be what decides a battle for playing time in which you can also throw Mateo Kovacic, as they all chase a place alongside N’golo Kante and Jorginho in midfield. But Loftus-Cheek showed here that he has a natural eye for goal, scoring an opener which was almost identical to his first ever Chelsea strike, and in a team short on seasoned goalscorers it is perhaps the one asset Sarri cannot ignore.

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