England's Ruben Loftus-Cheek takes part in a training session for the England team at the 2018 soccer World Cup, in the Spartak Zelenogorsk ground, Zelenogorsk near St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, June 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Fearless Loftus-Cheek set for England chance at World Cup

June 21, 2018 - 9:45 am
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REPINO, Russia (AP) — The English national team's underappreciation of flair players goes back years, with Matt Le Tissier and Glenn Hoddle among those failing to win the number of appearances their talent deserved.

It is why the likely selection of Ruben Loftus-Cheek for the World Cup group game against Panama on Sunday should thrill England fans who are slowly getting back onside with the team under forward-thinking coach Gareth Southgate.

Loftus-Cheek is a tall, powerfully-built 22-year-old central midfielder who plays with a nonchalance and panache seemingly straight from the school yard.

Take his England debut, against Germany at Wembley Stadium in November. One of his first touches was a backheel through the legs of Leroy Sane, followed moments later by another "nutmeg" of a second German player, Marcel Halstenberg.

He relished being center stage, demanding passes even though opponents were right on his back — just like when he was a kid and he played with friends in small, caged pitches that helped improve his footwork and control in tight spaces. It was a fearless and composed performance to get excited about, and he was picked as the man of the match.

Now, he finds himself at the World Cup as one of a slew of bold squad selections from Southgate, who is intent on going with youth as he looks to return England to the international game's top table.

And having impressed after coming on as a substitute in England's 2-1 win over Tunisia on Monday, Loftus-Cheek is set to start against Panama in place of Dele Alli, who has a thigh injury and missed training Thursday.

"He showed when he came on the other day that he can change the game," England teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold said Thursday. "He is an asset to any team he plays in with his physicality and the way he can play in the midfield is rare for such a big lad. He's a top-quality player."

Loftus-Cheek has long been spoken of as a future star of English soccer, but he has never quite established himself at Chelsea, which — despite having a consistently successful youth team — has a recent history of buying top talent from home and abroad in its quest for trophies under Russian owner Roman Abramovich.

"Ever since I was in the Chelsea academy, I've had that awareness that people were saying I would be the first one to break through since John Terry," Loftus-Cheek said. "I believed I could but the opportunities didn't quite come for me."

It was only last season, when he went on loan at Premier League rival Crystal Palace, that the country really got to see his talents on a weekly basis. Palace manager Roy Hodgson raved about him, saying: "He just doesn't have any weaknesses." 

Not that Southgate needed reminding.

Southgate, a former coach of England's under-21 team, has followed the midfielder's progression through the country's youth teams from the age of 15. He appreciates Loftus-Cheek's technique, his natural ability, that fearless edge to him.

But many other England coaches haven't felt that way about the so-called luxury players. Why else would Le Tissier, the scorer of some of the Premier League's greatest ever goals at Southampton, finish his career with only eight England appearances? Or Hoddle end up with just 53? As for other richly talented former England players, John Barnes was barracked by some fans and Paul Scholes wasn't cherished like he should have been.

Loftus-Cheek came on as an 80th-minute substitute against Tunisia and looked immediately at home on the big stage. He drove forward, made some neat turns and played with his head up.

There is still some debate about where his best position is.

Is he a No. 10? Is he an out-and-out central midfielder? Can he even run games from a deeper position?

But what isn't in doubt is his presence and assuredness. He has modeled his game on Michael Ballack, the Germany midfielder who used to play for Chelsea, and it's easy to spot the influence.

After the World Cup, Loftus-Cheek's aim is to hold down a regular position in Chelsea's team. He says he just wants to play football, even if that means leaving the club that brought him through.

First, though, is Panama. A good display could see Southgate keep Loftus-Cheek in the team for the final group-stage game against Belgium and beyond, should England advance.

Just don't expect Loftus-Cheek to go into his shell. Not with Southgate willing to back him all the way.

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More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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