Europa League: Why his hat-trick against BATE could be a career-defining night for Ruben Loftus-Cheek
It was a European Night in 2014 against Sporting Club that saw Ruben Loftus-Cheek made his Chelsea debut. Prior to the match, Jose Mourinho had called it "The academy's night" with the academy graduate partnering him at the Pre-match press conference. With Chelsa having qualified from the group, it was the perfect opportunity to have a glimpse of the youngster.
The chance did come from the bench but only for ten minutes. The next time the Stamford Bridge faithful got to see him play was a few months later, once the Blues were confirmed as winners of the Premier League.
In the following season, Loftus-Cheek earned a permanent promotion to the first team. There was hope of seeing him become a regular feature in the team. However, the 2015-16 was an unprecedented disaster for the club with Jose Mourinho being sacked. Despite the club's struggle, neither Mourinho or Hiddink gave him a lot of opportunities. New coach Antonio Conte converted him into a striker and largely left him on the sidelines. Over the course of two seasons, Loftus-Cheek made only 28 appearances for the club mostly from the bench.
Due to Conte's reluctance to use him, the club made a decision to loan him out to Crystal Palace for the 2017-18 season. This was a move that would cause a heavy backlash with the Blues spending big money on Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater.
In South London, the Englishman showed why the hype was all about him. Despite a season cut short because of injury, Loftus-Cheek caught everyone's attention around the country. He became a favourite at Selhurst Park in extremely quick time. Even Gareth Southgate took notice and earned him a place in the England World Cup Squad. In Russia, the 22-year-old played four matches in England's historic campaign.
Loftus-Cheek has always been a player highly rated in Chelsea's boardroom. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of offers for the player in the summer transfer window for a loan move. Every one of them was rejected as the club felt he deserves a place in the first team.
However, Ross Barkley having a full pre-season with Maurizio Sarri due to his non-selection in the World Cup team and the signing of Mateo Kovacic made things difficult for him. An Injury in September's international break made things worse for him. It looked like things were back to square one for the academy graduate.
However, once again, a European Night became a defining one for Loftus Cheek.
Only making his second start of the season, the 22-year-old produced a memorable performance against Bate Borisov. Only in the second minute of the game, Loftus-Cheek made a Frank Lampardesque run into the box from midfield to score from a Davide Zappacosta cross. A few minutes later, he got another goal from a corner.
Early in the second half, the English International completed his hat-trick with a curling effort from outside the box. Soon, the whole of Stamford Bridge sang "one of our own" in unison. It was surely a moment that made every Chelsea fan around the world beam with pride. It's a club that continues to wait for its academy graduates to break through. Such moments give hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
With both Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley in top form, it is still an uphill battle for Loftus-Cheek with time running out. Despite that, it could still be a night of revival for him. Firstly, the youngster's overall performance was almost perfect. Even without the goals, Loftus-Cheek was the best player on the pitch along with Kovacic.
The Englishman's was constantly demanding the ball and ran the show for the Blues. All his striking qualities were on full display at Stamford Bridge. His magical ball carrying capabilities is something Sarri could not have ignored. With the team struggling to find goalscorers, Loftus-Cheek could not have chosen a better time to score a hat-trick.
It is not that a performance in the Europa League cannot make a difference. One should not forget, this is the tournament which turned things around for Harry Kane. In Mauricio Pochettino's first season at Tottenham, Kane put in a string of impressive performances on Thursday nights which made it hard for the coach to ignore him.
At the time, Kane was of a similar age to Loftus-Cheek. The things Kane has gone on to do are well documented. Who knows if history could repeat for English football.
With this performance, Loftus-Cheek has done more than stake a claim. It could well turn out to a night that people remember as a turning point in years to come. However, there is still a big chance that he might have to leave Chelsea for his career's sake. If it does not, the blame solely lies with the club.
The player has tried his best to make it at Stamford Bridge. In reality, he has given Chelsea far too much time for his own good. The club never cleared a pathway for him while the coaches never gave him a fair run with the team. Loftus-Cheek's case only emphasises the need for Chelsea to change their outlook towards youth. If he decides to leave, it will be a decision the club will live to regret.
But there is a reason the player has waited so long to get a chance at Chelsea. Loftus-Cheek joined the club as an eight-year-old. His love and passion for the club are evident to everyone. Even if it does not happen for him at Chelsea, there will always be this special night for him to remember at his boyhood club. Wherever he goes, he will always have the full backing of Chelsea supports around the world. But at least because of today, they can all dream, Chelsea is the only place where his future lies.