ENGLAND’S forgotten man for four years, Ruben Loftus-Cheek might just be timing a late World Cup run to perfection.
And you can bet he’s one of the few buzzing that it’s this winter rather than next summer.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is making his mark back in the Chelsea team and was trusted at the BernabeuCredit: AP
The midfielder may well be in Gareth Southgate’s thoughts ahead of the World CupCredit: EPA
Chances are that he would not make it if it was in July.
Yet what we do know is that Gareth Southgate was a massive fan.
And certainly on tonight’s evidence, it would come as no surprise if the England boss had again started pencilling his name down a couple of lists here and there.
There is plenty more work to do if Loftus-Cheek, 26, is to force his way on to the plane for Qatar.
But with seven months to go, time is on his side — and his form is undoubtedly now heading in the right direction.
Handed three starts at the 2018 World Cup, the smart money back then was on Loftus-Cheek being one of the first names on the teamsheet in Qatar.
Crippling injuries and a painfully slow recovery to reach those heights again soon put paid to that.
When on loan at relegated Fulham last season, England couldn’t have been further from the radar. Forget the Three Lions, you wondered if he would ever play for Chelsea again.
So, nearly 12 months on, it’s been a hell of a turnaround.
That Tuchel trusted Loftus-Cheek on the biggest stage of all – surely to the surprise of even his biggest admirers – says it all.
Was it perfect? Absolutely not.
But playing in an unnatural hybrid role out on the right, in the hostile Bernabeu cauldron, Loftus-Cheek proved beyond doubt that he is back for good.
While the rest of Chelsea’s starters are well established in environments like this after last season’s heroics, Loftus-Cheek is not there yet.
A week before his team-mates were lifting the Champions League in Porto, on loan at Fulham, he was hauled off at half-time with the Cottagers losing their last game of the season.
However, Tuchel is clearly a believer, with tonight his 30th appearance of the season.
There have been ups and downs during the campaign, but this should prove a watershed moment in his Blues career.
Playing in a hybrid role down the right – sometimes full-back, sometimes centre mid, sometimes flying winger – it was a shaky start.
Passes went awry, promising situations were fluffed and, frankly, Loftus-Cheek looked a little lost.
Thomas Tuchel barely stopped barking and gesticulating in his direction.
But on this sink or swim night, Loftus-Cheek refused to go under.
Nearer to the left than right flank for the Blues’ opener, it was his – slightly heavy, granted – touch to Timo Werner before Mason Mount was played in.
His run infield created the extra man and Mount was in in a flash.
Loftus-Cheek settled from there, playing a crucial role in defence and attack as the Blues raced into a 3-0 lead.
It didn’t all go his way – this was no worldie performance.
But his athleticism and physicality give Chelsea a different engine in the middle of the park, and Tuchel’s plan to move him central nullified Luka Modric and Toni Kroos for large parts.
When Loftus-Cheek watches it back, there will be moments going forward that he will know he could have done better in when delivering the cross or final pass.
Tactical flexibility and the ability to play across a number of positions don’t help everyone, but it could be the key to his winter.
Hit the ground running next season and there could be a fair few more chapters of his England story to write yet.
Loftus-Cheek struggled in the early parts and Tuchel was constantly barking orders at himCredit: Getty
Last season he was struggling on loan at Fulham now he is starting in crunch Blues matchesCredit: Getty