Hat-trick hero Loftus-Cheek shows Sarri he can still make the Chelsea grade

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Ruben Loftus-Cheek Chelsea 2018-19
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The England midfielder has emerged as a symbol of the Blues' failure to bring through academy products into their first team, but all is not lost yet

Six successive FA Youth Cups, back-to-back UEFA Youth League titles and a quadruple at Under-18 level - Chelsea's academy cannot be matched in the current youth football landscape. And yet Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been hoisted as a symbol of everything wrong with the path to the first team at Stamford Bridge.

An occasional starter for England during their run to the semi-finals of the World Cup, many expected this to be the campaign that Loftus-Cheek finally broke down the door and became a fixture in the Chelsea first team, able to thrive under the tutelage of Maurizio Sarri.

His match-winning performance against BATE, though, was just his second start of the campaign, both of which have come in the Europa League. Injuries have stalled his development a little since his successful loan spell at Crystal Palace, but the arrival of Mateo Kovacic and the form of Ross Barkley have ensured any opportunities were few and far between.

In just 468 seconds against the champions of Belarus he had doubled his goal tally for the club from two to four, ensuring that the Blues' concerns that they had scored just two goals from their 50 previous shots in the competition were nothing to worry about. By the hour mark his first senior hat-trick was secure.

His first was a demonstration of technique, making a late run into the box and sweeping a shot into the bottom corner after Davide Zappacosta's low cross from the right. Frank Lampard - watching on alongside assistant Jody Morris ahead of Derby County's trip here in the League Cup next week - scored many a similar strike during his record-breaking time in west London.

The 22-year-old followed that up with a display of his physicality, muscling the BATE defence out of the way from a corner to stroke home past Denis Scherbitski, to double the lead. Unsurprisingly the crowd rose to the occasion, chanting the midfielder's name at every opportunity.

Despite his early salvo, Sarri was keen to not let Loftus-Cheek rest on laurels, repeatedly calling him over to offer further instruction. If nothing else it served as a reminder that the midfielder may well need to prove he can fully adapt to the Italian's style before earning a more regular berth in his starting line-up.

For now, though, he can celebrate what may well become a defining moment in his still burgeoning career. Having carried the ball out of defence and swept a pass out to the left-hand side, Loftus-Cheek caught up with play to curl a shot past Scherbitski from the edge of the area after Pedro was held up by a visiting defender. Held aloft by his team-mates, this was a moment to savour as he became the first Chelsea player to score a hat-trick in European competition since Didier Drogba against Levski Sofia over 12 years ago.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek Chelsea 2018-19

"He's one of our own - Loftus-Cheek, he's one of our own," was the chant coming from all corners of the Bridge as the on-pitch celebrations died down, and the home faithful would love nothing more than for a homegrown talent to establish himself given all the criticism the club has garnered from outside over the years.

There is no doubt that Loftus-Cheek's performances with the Three Lions have increased the pressure on Sarri to offer him more chances, and there is no doubt that this treble will have done his prospects of being involved at Burnley on Sunday no harm. But he will need consistency if he is to be the beacon for others to follow.

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If not him then fans will hope either Callum Hudson-Odoi - who came off the bench after an hour this evening - Mason Mount, who will step out here for the first time in senior football for Lampard's Derby following the decision to allow him and fellow loanee Fikayo Tomori the chance to play against their parent club, or Ethan Ampadu will establish themselves at the club where they learned their trade.

For now, though, all focus from outside Chelsea will be on Loftus-Cheek. A January loan move remains a distinct possibility while he still may have to leave on a permanent basis to fully reach his potential in the years to come.

For one night, though, he was the toast of Stamford Bridge, and given all the pressure on him to succeed it is more than a little deserved. Now the hard work starts in proving to Sarri that it is not a one-off occurrence.