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MATT BARLOW: Ruben Loftus-Cheek has navigated a long road to get back to the top with Chelsea


When Mateo Kovacic hobbled off with an ankle badly swollen, midway through a dreadfully dull and turgid first half it seemed as if Chelsea’s rapidly disintegrating season might have suffered another problematic twist.

And when Thomas Tuchel overlooked N’Golo Kante, the obvious choice to enliven a display devoid of zest, it was tempting to wonder if that epic encounter with Real Madrid in a long and congested season was about to have repercussions in the FA Cup.

Cue Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Chelsea’s forgotten midfielder who replaced Kovacic and fizzed a volley into the Crystal Palace net, cracking open the contest and propelling Tuchel’s team towards their third successive FA Cup final. Their fourth in the five years. Their ninth in 16 since the showpiece returned to Wembley Stadium.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek broke the deadlock with the opening goal of the semi-final at Wembley

Ruben Loftus-Cheek broke the deadlock with the opening goal of the semi-final at Wembley

The goal in the semi-final was a memorable moment for a player who has had a difficult career

Crystal Palace were the better side in the first half but could not make their dominance count

Crystal Palace were the better side in the first half but could not make their dominance count

‘I was just thinking hit it,’ said Loftus-Cheek. ‘I think it took a little deflection but I’ll take it.’

It was his first goal of the season. His first for the Blues, in fact, since one went in against Eintracht Frankfurt in a Europa League semi-final way back in May 2019, just days before he ruptured an Achilles tendon during an exhibition match in the United States squeezed between the end of the Premier League season and the European final against Arsenal in Baku.

‘Way overdue,’ said Loftus-Cheek. ‘It has been a tough road with injuries and going on loan to find my form again but I always believed in myself and I always wanted to play for Chelsea. I have played quite a lot this season, I am happy.

‘The reason I am still here is my mentality through all the injuries. I still believed in myself and I said for many years my time will come.’

Loftus-Cheek faced complications in the recovery process and, as ever at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich, changes of managers, turns of direction inside the club.

Loftus Cheek has often struggled with injuries and been unable to nail down a regular place

Loftus Cheek has often struggled with injuries and been unable to nail down a regular place

Mason Mount sealed victory for Chelsea - and their place in the final - with the second goal

Mason Mount sealed victory for Chelsea – and their place in the final – with the second goal

He spent last season on loan at Fulham, where he struggled for form as they were relegated. Certainly, it was not the success year at Crystal Palace had been, when he forced his way into the England side. Nor was he instantly embraced upon his return by Tuchel.

Chelsea had just won the Champions League and the loan signing of Saul Niguez meant he was, at best, fifth in line for one of the two – sometimes three – midfield positions, with Mason Mount capable of playing there and Conor Gallagher impressing on loan at Palace, unable to play in this semi-final against his parent club.

But he stuck at the task, made an impression on Tuchel, answered the call to play in various positions including wing-back and centre-half at times in recent weeks and is back making a difference for the club he has represented since he was in the Under-8s.

‘Self-confidence does not come from being big, tall and good-looking, which he is,’ said Tuchel on Friday, praising his performances against Southampton and Real Madrid as he prepared to leave him on the bench at Wembley. ‘It comes also from experience.’

Crystal Palace fans outsung their Chelsea counterparts and put on a colourful display

Crystal Palace fans outsung their Chelsea counterparts and put on a colourful display

Little wonder, with all this bubbling away inside, Loftus-Cheek was unable to temper his emotions when the ball hit the net and celebrated the moment with all his heart.

‘It was a big moment,’ said Tuchel. ‘You could see it in his celebration. He is normally very calm, a very quiet guy and to see him like this and jumping and celebrating it’s good. We need to restore this confidence into his body and his game.

‘These are the next steps for him that he can absolutely feel how much influence he can have if he shows everybody in the stadium his potential and not only us on the training ground. These are the next steps for him and we will encourage him to do so.’

It was impossible not to feel some measure of delight for the 26-year-old and from the depths of a grim first half came a beam of inspiration.

Thomas Tuchel praised Loftus-Cheek and said his goal would restore his confidence

Thomas Tuchel praised Loftus-Cheek and said his goal would restore his confidence

Chelsea had been flat, low on energy and ideas. Even their supporters seemed exhausted, muted as noise pulsated and blue-and-red smoke clouds billowed from canisters at the other end.

Perhaps the boardroom soap opera is taking its toll on everyone. This combined with a long campaign on many fronts and the emotional fatigue inflicted by last week’s defeat in extra-time in the epic Champions League tie against Real Madrid.

The embarrassing dive by Kai Havertz, in search of a penalty before the interval, betrayed the creeping sense of desperation but Chelsea were far improved in the second half, when they played further forward and moved the ball more briskly, forcing mistakes and making their quality count.

Once Loftus-Cheek found the breakthrough, they did not look like losing. Palace opened up and Mount grabbed the second. Two academy lads scoring the goals to book the club in for the next instalment of their modern rivalry Liverpool.

‘We want to get them back, simple as that,’ said Loftus-Cheek. Spoken like a true blue, Chelsea through and through.



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