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Loftus-Cheek takes Chelsea chance

He was booked in the first minute, but Ruben Loftus-Cheek took that in his stride as he grabbed the opportunity given to him by Chelsea manager José Mourinho against Maccabi Tel-Aviv.

Loftus-Cheek: This is just the start
Loftus-Cheek: This is just the start

A booking inside the opening minute, with his first challenge of the game, threatened to derail Ruben Loftus-Cheek's big opportunity before it had scarcely begun.

By the end of an impressive shift, that awkward first intervention served only to heighten admiration for the part the teenager had played in Chelsea's successful attempt to blow away the storm clouds and get back to winning football.

One of six changes summoned by José Mourinho's desire to "change the dynamic" and bring his team a change of fortune, Loftus-Cheek's levels of skill and confidence were highly impressive in the holding role that Nemanja Matić had made his own.

In the 4-0 UEFA Champions League Group G defeat of Maccabi Tel-Aviv, the 19-year-old showed strength in the tackle and poise in possession. He demonstrated an ability to sense danger, then unleashing forward sorties that produced scoring opportunities for colleagues.

Mourinho admitted afterwards that the yellow card tempted him to withdraw his rookie midfielder at the interval, fearful of him picking up a second. But the "solidity" of his display on his first full UEFA Champions League appearance stayed the manager's hand until he was substituted late on and departed to a standing ovation.

Loftus-Cheek in action
Loftus-Cheek in action©AFP/Getty Images

Loftus-Cheek admitted he had enjoyed his 77 minutes under the spotlight. "I just tried to be confident on the ball and play my normal game,” he told UEFA.com. "I said to myself to try and enjoy the game but I've got to keep my feet on the ground. Being named key player is something I will always remember and I really want to push on, train well, and try and get better every day so I get more minutes on the pitch."

Pat Nevin, former Chelsea winger and now a respected BBC pundit, had seen enough in the first 45 minutes to predict that Mourinho would find it hard to leave him out of the side for the game with Arsenal on Saturday.

"Coming into a team like Chelsea you have to be confident but that's hard for a youngster. Add the Champions League to that and it's a lot for a young player to take on," Nevin said. "There were a couple of occasions particularly against Eran Zahavi who's a very dangerous player, when he read his runs and snuffed them out. He looks very comfortable in that position."

It was a happy night for Chelsea
It was a happy night for Chelsea©Getty Images

Loftus-Cheek has forced his way to the front of a long queue of outstanding young talent patiently awaiting their chance in Mourinho's selection. For too long these players have added to the quality of clubs lower down the leagues or abroad via the loan transfer system and it has led to supporter criticism that Chelsea are ignoring their own.

"It's simple," Nevin points out, "if you're good enough you'll get a game. Football's a meritocracy and has always been so. It's lovely when your own young players come through but if the team is full of youngsters and struggling against relegation you don’t tend to hear them mentioned so much.

"Remember as well that these young players have a better chance than any kid in Africa or Rio de Janeiro of making it into the Chelsea first team because they are performing in front of the club's scouts every day of the week. They have the best opportunity, the first shout, and they have to take their chance when it comes along."