4 October 2018

The Barkley And RLC Conundrum  (Sky Sports)

Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-CheekAfter Ross Barkley was selected ahead of Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the England squad on Thursday afternoon, it was roles reversed come Thursday evening's Europa League win over Vidi. With places a premium for club and country, the duo's battle has only just begun, writes Michael Hincks.

On Wednesday, Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri backed the "improving" Barkley to return to Gareth Southgate's England squad. The midfielder was equally as bullish, stating his performances had warranted a recall.

Come Thursday, the 24-year-old was rewarded with a place in the 25-man squad, ending what has been an 18-month exodus from the national set-up, while you have to go back to May 2016 for the last time he actually featured for England.

Barkley will hope to end that two-year wait against Croatia next week, live on Sky Sports, but any celebratory mood he may have been in would not have lasted long on Thursday, for he found himself out of the Chelsea XI, with Loftus-Cheek - omitted from England's squad after getting the nod in September - starting ahead of him.

It seems this town ain't big enough for the both of them.

Barkley, meanwhile, was a second-half substitute, replacing Loftus-Cheek after 66 minutes as Chelsea searched for the opener, which came four minutes later thanks to Alvaro Morata, who cut a relieved figure when stroking home what proved to be the winner.

It means Loftus-Cheek and Barkley are yet to share the pitch for Chelsea this season. It may seem slightly unfair to point out, given Thursday was only Loftus-Cheek's third appearance, but one has now replaced the other in two of those games - could a pattern be emerging?

With Jorginho, N'Golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas and Mateo Kovacic for company in midfield, opportunities must be seized upon by Chelsea's English contingent, and while Loftus-Cheek and Barkley are in the mix, Danny Drinkwater is struggling to even make the bench.

The fact Jorginho is so woven into Sarri's plans leaves space for just two more midfielders, while the presence of Kante - who has found himself playing further upfield - means, in reality, Barkley and Loftus-Cheek are battling it out with Kovacic for the attacking role of the middle three - when it comes to Premier League games at least.

Europa League nights offer Sarri an opportunity to explore his options, and against Vidi, both Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek started alongside Fabregas in midfield.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley Stats
Kovacic had a solid display, and perhaps will be disappointed with his play in the final third, while it was Loftus-Cheek who stood out in the first half; dictating attacks, retrieving possession and driving forward at any opportunity.

He will also feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty after slaloming between three defenders and going down inside the box, and while it was a contentious decision, there was no denying his performance was impressive on the whole.

He departed play four minutes before Chelsea scored their opener, with Barkley - looking like a man with a point to prove - taking his place.

An energetic 25-minute cameo saw Barkley valiantly get a shot away while in the process of stumbling over, before he went on to hit the bar with a glancing header later on.

Between them, the performances of Loftus-Cheek and Barkley arguably warranted a goal, but the fact they both walked away empty-handed has left Sarri with another selection headache ahead of Sunday's match at Southampton - live on Sky Sports Premier League.

It could be that the goalscoring department is where the duo will be judged going forward, particularly if they are playing for the right to start in a more advanced role, but neither are currently renowned goalscoring midfielders.

Loftus-Cheek scored twice in 24 Premier League appearances for Crystal Palace last season, while Barkley netted five times for Everton in the 2016-17 campaign, and has obviously struggled for game-time since.

Of course, goals are not everything, but they could well help the cause. Loftus-Cheek and Barkley are just starting their tug of war at Chelsea and for England too - if one of them can start scoring, then perhaps they will come to the fore.

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