Loftus-Cheek steps up as Chelsea's go-to man in the absence of Hazard

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Martin Rose
The Blues midfielder is thriving in Europe and stood up as the Belgian was rested, delivering exciting attacking play in his absence

The hype at Chelsea this season has been built around Callum Hudson-Odoi and the focus ahead of Thursday's clash with Eintracht Frankfurt was on Luka Jovic, but the first leg of the Europa League semi-final again demonstrated Ruben Loftus-Cheek's importance as a key player.

Yes, he is 23, but the Chelsea academy product has been held back for so long that it feels like he is younger as his outing in the semi-final was only the 94th senior club match in his career.  

Loftus-Cheek is now surely Maurizio Sarri's third midfielder to complete his set as he watched his trio dominate a strong Bundesliga team at their stadium. 

Jorginho produced one of his best displays this season, while N'Golo Kante surprised no one with his all-action performance, linking the midfield and attack, while also quickly snuffing out danger. 

Arguably, though, Loftus-Cheek outperformed both the World Cup winner and the £57 million man on one of the biggest stages he has played in his career. 

Eden Hazard was left out ahead of kick-off and someone needed to step up to score that away goal for Chelsea. Loftus-Cheek came closest in the first half and helped turn around a testing start to the game, where Jovic opened the scoring with a brilliant header. 

It was Loftus-Cheek's elegant runs that turned the tide in the Commerzbank-Arena, as he produced two shots at the end of the half to threaten Kevin Trapp's goal. 

His nine take-ons were more than any other player has achieved in a knock-out Europa League match this season. 

Ruben Loftus-Cheek Chelsea Eintracht Frankfurt Europa League 2019

Loftus-Cheek's efforts were ultimately rewarded, as he supplied Pedro with an assist and gave the Stamford Bridge club a vital away goal ahead of the second leg. 

His four shots and three key passes put him ahead of his more senior colleagues statistically and he was unlucky not to score in the second half as Pedro's pull-back was slightly behind him, making a shot he pushed over Trapp's goal more difficult than it should have been.  

It seems Sarri knows what he has got in Loftus-Cheek as he earned four starts in four league games before being left out against Manchester United at the weekend. His managers may not be stunting his development anymore, but unfortunately for Loftus-Cheek his back complaint continues to be an issue. 

Sarri spoke about Loftus-Cheek's performance, but still holds concerns about his fitness and took him off in the 81st minute of the 1-1 draw. 

“Loftus-Cheek is a very important player," Sarri said in Frankfurt. "He improved a lot during the season. When he is at the top, physically, he's a very important player. He's always in trouble with his back, and it's not easy for him to have training with consistency. 

"But in this match, he was really fit. He played a very good match. He had a cramp in the last 10 minutes so he called me for a substitution.” 

This competition is often derided but Chelsea want to win it to turn what has, at times, been a very negative season into a positive one. The development of Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi in this competition has been a source of pride for Chelsea fans, as they aim to see an academy product make it in the first team. 

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Loftus-Cheek has taken his chances in this competition with goals, assists and even a hat-trick to his name, which has since led to more game time in the Premier League. 

The Blues should have half an eye on life without Hazard, who looks likely to move to Real Madrid this summer, and it will take many players like Loftus-Cheek improving to help absorb the loss of a talisman. 

Chelsea fans have always known it, English football now knows it, and the rest of Europe is learning that Loftus-Cheek is a force to be reckoned with in the heart of Chelsea's midfield. 

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