Starting only his second game of the season, as Chelsea’s squad was given a thorough rotation, Ruben Loftus-Cheek emerged as the hat-trick hero in the Blues’ latest Europa Cup outing against FC BATE Borisov, the champions of Belarus.
The 22-year-old picked a floodlit European night at Stamford Bridge to score his first Chelsea hat-trick, earning a standing ovation and instantly overtaking the unhappy Alvaro Morata, who has only managed two goals all season.
Beefier, nippier and better balanced than he was before he spent his season-long loan spell at Crystal Palace, the young midfielder/striker was hungry and well-supported by a greatly changed side on a chilly evening in SW6 as Chelsea won 3-1 to give them maximum points so far in the group stage of the Europa League competition.
Loftus-Cheek wasn’t the only player impressing manager Morrie Sarri. Davide Zappacosta had an excellent game scurrying down the right, left-back Emerson was on good form alongside captain Gary Cahill, while Mateo Kovacic – now becoming a favourite of fans – twisted, turned and gave everything.
Chelsea got off to a flying start, with Zappacosta sending a cross over to Loftus-Cheek to rocket home after just 1 minute and 43 seconds. The second came six minutes later; a Willian corner floated in and nudged home.
The hat-trick arrived in the 53rd minute, when Pedro’s shot was blocked by BATE keeper Denis Sherbitski, but fell invitingly to the goal hero who sent a right-foot curler flying into the net.
BATE pulled back a consolation goal in the 79th minute, when Chelsea’s markers failed to spot Aleksei Rios racing in at the far stick to hit home a free kick floated into the area.
Where does this goal-scoring feat from midfield leave Loftus-Cheek? Well, rumours were circulating that he would join Cahill and Victor Moses (a substitute against BATE) in seeking a move in January as they all felt under-used in the squad.
That looks set to change, with the midfielder – playing in the Europa League behind a front three of Olivier Giroud, Pedro and Willian as Eden Hazard recovers from back pain – now in line for more starts… possibly at the expense of Morata.
Sarri concedes he has problems shoehorning Loftus-Cheek into his preferred formation, but cannot ignore this dazzling display from a young star who has been at the club since the age of eight, and who surely deserves more pitch time.
“We have four midfielders, and three have the same characteristics as Ruben,” said Sarri afterwards. Yes, but there’s possibly a vacancy slightly further up the pitch! Could Sarri be tempted to give Loftus-Cheek a few starts as centre forward, alternating with Giroud?
The last Englishmen to score hat-tricks in Europe for the Blues were Peter Osgood and Tommy Baldwin, in the same match against Luxembourg minnows Jeunesse Hautcharage in 1971. One of the Jeunesse players wore glasses, while their striker only had one arm. The final aggregate score in the European Cup Winners’ Cup was 21-0.