Can injury-prone Ruben Loftus-Cheek cement his place in the Chelsea squad after inability to complete 90 minutes continues?

Ruben Loftus-Cheek

2018/19 will undoubtedly go down in Chelsea lore as one of the biggest missed opportunities in living memory. Yet, with the introduction of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek into the Chelsea ranks this term, there is every implication that Sarri can go on to create his own blend of British craftsmanship and foreign flair to great effect.

However, a long-term back injury has led many to believe that Loftus Cheek’s big chance of being a regular starter for Chelsea has been extinguished. So too is there a fear that the rigours of two-fronted battles, in which the Blues rightly desire to fight every season, will simply be too much for him.

Loftus-Cheek’s recurring back injury is a problem that has dogged the English youngster’s professional life for longer than many realise. Worst of all, it is the type that has not only seen the chances of other promising players with a top club disappear but also end a career entirely.

The origins of his back issues are attributed in some parts to the rate at which he grew physically while playing youth football. His most significant absence to date is the long spell he missed in the winter of 2017/18, sustaining an injury on 28 December 2017, in a close-fought defeat to Arsenal at Selhurst Park while on loan at Crystal Palace.

Though it was an ankle injury which caused the problem on that occasion, it came at a time where he was staking a real claim for regular inclusion into the England starting XI. While 2018/19 has been distinctly kinder to Loftus Cheek, he began 2019 by leaving the field in tears of agony, during Chelsea’s routine win over Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup. While he has since recovered to play a part in both league and European games, his personal saga has taken the bleakest turn yet in recent days.

Even though Maurizio Sarri saw fit to give Loftus-Cheek some minutes in the 1-0 victory at Slavia, the Italian coach has publicly revealed that he does not feel comfortable starting Loftus-Cheek. While Sarri’s words are not reassuring in the slightest, he knows as well as anyone that Loftus-Cheek can be the difference between taking home three points or leaving a game empty handed.

That has certainly been the case of late, with Loftus-Cheek netting in two successive league games earlier in the spring. Firstly, he netted a 91st minute winner at Cardiff to spare his team’s blushes, and then respectively assisted and scored the second and third goals against Brighton just four days later. He also scored in successive games back in October and December, and on that evidence, he is a player who thrives on good form as much as innate skill.

Loftus-Cheek’s evident ability to play through the pain barrier is a great asset. That noted, the Chelsea starting XI is undoubtedly one of the most competitive in Europe. Indeed, those that  current spread betting odds, for fourth place in the Premier League and an outright Europa League win, can see that Chelsea are favoured. Thus, Sarri is unlikely to change his default starting XI very readily.

For that reason, any sustained period of absence makes it difficult for most to re-establish into the Chelsea starting XI, unless the player in question is an undisputed ‘A-list’ asset like Eden Hazard or Willian.

Loftus-Cheek, for all his natural talent, arguably does not yet fall into this hallowed category. However, the case for his long-term future at Chelsea remains strong, and his continued involvement – even from the bench – bodes well.

A countless number of talented young players have found the top league to be an unforgiving place when recurring injuries manifest themselves. Ultimately for Loftus-Cheek, the line – between career-ending overexertion and a respectable career – remains a fine one that he will tread with trepidation for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

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