Kovačić setting standard for Chelsea’s England hopefuls

Mateo Kovačić left Real Madrid to join Chelsea. (AFP pic)

LONDON: Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad announcement brought mixed news for Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but at club level, the immediate obstacle confronting both players is the outstanding form of Chelsea teammate Mateo Kovačić.

Having both featured in Thursday’s Europa League defeat of Vidi – Barkley replaced Loftus-Cheek midway through the second half – the pair will be back on the sidelines should Kovačić return to the starting line-up at Southampton on Sunday.

And if the Croatia international maintains the form he has shown since his season-long loan move from Real Madrid, the two England hopefuls will be given another reminder of the standards they must attain if they are to become regular starters.

England manager Southgate had kept faith with Loftus-Cheek, who was a member of the World Cup campaign, for the last round of internationals, despite the midfielder’s lack of early season game time under Maurizio Sarri at Stamford Bridge.

This time however, Loftus-Cheek’s inaction has led to him being dropped from from the squad to face Croatia and Spain, while Barkley has been recalled for the first time since May 2016 after overcoming the serious hamstring injury that ended his hopes of making the plane to Russia this summer.

The position of both players on the fringe of Southgate’s squad will fuel discussion about the opportunities available to young English players at the Premier League’s leading clubs.

But in the case of Barkley, 24, and Loftus-Cheek, two years his junior, Kovačić’s impressive start to life in England highlights the limitations of that debate.

Chelsea pulled off a considerable coup when they persuaded Real Madrid to allow the Croatian to move in the opposite direction when goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois left for the Santiago Bernabéu at the end of the transfer window.

This, though, was no attempt by the Spanish club to offload a player who was surplus to requirements.

By letting the 24-year-old move to Stamford Bridge, Real knew Kovačić would be a regular starter at a club competing for a return to the top four in the Premier League and Europa League.

The player would continue to develop at a high level, and with no agreement in place to transform the move into permanent arrangement, Kovačić should progress before returning to La Liga.

For their part, Chelsea got a midfielder who had played a prominent role in Croatia’s journey to the World Cup final without having to pay a high transfer fee.

Kovačić has lived up to his billing, settling in seamlessly in a midfield that has so far provided an impressive platform for Eden Hazard to excel in a more advanced position.

The understanding between the two players has quickly developed, summed up by Chelsea’s goal in last weekend’s draw with Liverpool when Kovačić’s clever pass released Hazard to put the Blues ahead.

Chelsea coach Sarri, whose high-flying side face a Southampton team trying to pull further clear of the relegation zone, has been quick to praise the efforts of Barkley and Loftus-Cheek as they attempt to establish themselves in the Italian’s plans.

But it is clear the two Englishmen have more work to do in getting to grips with the tactical demands of Sarri’s system.

And while opportunities will continue to come along in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, it will take a significant loss of form by Kovačić to create a vacancy in that particular area of Chelsea’s midfield.