Loftus-Cheek can be Chelsea's late-season secret weapon

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Ruben Loftus-Cheek Chelsea
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Anticipation is growing at Stamford Bridge for the return of their powerhouse midfielder, whose development in the first team was cut short by injury

The last time we saw Ruben Loftus-Cheek on a football pitch in England it was away at Leicester City. Chelsea go to the King Power on Saturday afternoon still without a man they are keen to welcome back.

A return to training after eight months out injured has whet the appetite to see the England international back in club colours. The match against Leicester serves as a reminder that last year he was the second go-to player in the Chelsea squad after Eden Hazard.

Maurizio Sarri finally caved into pressure to give Loftus-Cheek and fellow academy graduate Callum Hudson-Odoi regular Premier League starts against Brighton on April 3. The duo had been banging down the door for starts with good form in the Europa League and domestic cups.

They repaid that faith; for Loftus-Cheek it was the first time a manager had trusted him to be a regular starter after waiting so patiently under a host of other bosses.

Finally in the first team, he immediately demonstrated his best traits. His height allows him to dominate the centre of the park but there is also the speed, which is less obvious, as well as his brilliant touch and technique, which make him hard to play against. 

Even with all his talent, Loftus-Cheek has struggled to find his identity as a player with different managers using him in a different positions. He has been a striker, winger, No.10, No.8 and a defensive midfielder.

A run of regular appearances last season showed what he could do. Ten goals and five assists in 40 games last season showed that Loftus-Cheek was a serious goal threat after playing in the No.8 position and as a winger last season.

All the while, Frank Lampard was watching from afar while trying to get Derby County promoted from the Championship.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek Chelsea

It was as a No.8 where he really excelled and, of those 40 appearances, there were 23 from the bench. Only in eight games did he complete 90 minutes.

It was the year when Loftus-Cheek really learned how to dominate using his size. Later in the season, his work with the club physios - and yoga - helped overcome back problems that had hindered his development. Unluckily, a freak Achilles tendon rupture on a poor pitch in a post-season friendly has further derailed his career.

The way that Sarri reacted to the injury going into the Europa League final against Arsenal was a mark of his increasing importance. Earlier in the season, the former Blues boss might have reacted with indifference but his fury irked the club, with Roman Abramovich having invested in the friendly in Boston against the New England Revolution.

Still, unwise as Sarri was to complain it showed how far Loftus-Cheek had come. He had that run of seven games in the team from Brighton to Leicester and that showed who he really was.

He was creating a chance every 62.6 minutes in the Premier League, up from one every 75.3 minutes. His dribble success rate in the league rose from 51.4 per cent to 60% after he gained that match rhythm. There was also a slight increase in the number of shots he was getting away.

That identity he was bringing forth as a player before the big injury is what the club are investing in with a new five-year deal worth £120,000 a week - signed in July 2019 - despite his long lay-off.

Lampard has been looking for goals in the transfer market as an insurance policy against dropping out of the top four this season with rivals Tottenham having strengthened in January.

The Blues are working right to the deadline on Friday to add goals to their squad but if they don't come up with anything then they will hope that another late-season impact from Loftus-Cheek can help the team.

Callum Hudson-Odoi Ruben Loftus-Cheek Chelsea

"I think you will miss Ruben; I don’t care who you are, you’ll miss his abilities," Lampard said ahead of the game at Leicester. "His natural physique, his ability to move the ball well and score the goals like he did last season, that has to be a big part of his game as well.

"Of course, we’ve missed a player of that level and it was nice to put a smile on everyone’s face on Friday because he is popular with his team-mates too. A smile on everyone’s face to see him back.

"It was the first day with us fully on Friday and it was a light session so that suited him. He has a fair way to go still, and I'm not pessimistic there. He just needs a full week training with us first, a tough week.

"Then he will need some Under-23 games, and again I think the break comes at a nice time for him to work. We’ll gauge it the other side of that break and see where he is. It might be too early [to face Leicester in the U23s on Friday].

"The week’s training is the important thing because he hasn’t had that at first-team level. Then we will consider the games after that."

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Lampard hasn't specifically blamed his strikers for a lack of goals this season, instead criticising the team more broadly as they struggle to break down the likes of Bournemouth, Southampton and West Ham.

The theme for springtime is rebirth and that's what Sarri banked on with Loftus-Cheek to get a top-four finish after a crisis-ridden winter. Sadly, there is no return date yet for Loftus-Cheek but his rehab has been boosted by being with his team-mates again.

Lampard may be less desperate - due to the decline of the chasing teams - but he clearly can't wait to see Loftus-Cheek back, the emerging talent who has long been the poster boy of the academy at Cobham.