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Has Crystal Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek put himself in contention for World Cup selection?

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It was a game that everybody had written off, labelled as just another fixture in what has been a seemingly endless stream of uninspiring and unwanted international matches over the past months.

The tepid nature of England’s recent matches at the end of their European Championship qualifying campaign left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of the country, and as such the frequent nature of international breaks across the past three months has drained most enthusiasm for the Three Lions.

A number of high-profile withdrawals from the squad did little to whet the appetite ahead of a showdown with old foes Germany either, leaving England’s resources depleted against a world-class side.

Yet whilst Friday’s match did little to inspire before kick-off, with many wondering what Gareth Southgate could possibly take from a match that pitted so many debutants against a strong and well-drilled German outfit, one man ensured that any pre-match script was ripped up and abandoned from the off.

The game may have ended goalless but on-loan Crystal Palace midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek truly lit up Wembley Stadium with an expansive display full of potential and flair to turn a fair few heads.

One of three debutants in the starting line-up, the 21-year-old defied any fears of being overawed by the occasion in front of a packed-out home crowd by putting in an individual display that provided a rare sense of excitement in an England shirt, something not felt since Marcus Rashford’s emergence.

If he felt any signs of nervousness ahead of kick-off then it certainly didn’t show on the pitch, taking just 20 minutes to make his first telling impact with a silky Cruyff turn followed by a sublime nutmeg.

It was a move that exuberated confidence and it set the pattern for Loftus-Cheek’s evening.

He nearly earnt himself a debut assist before half-time, setting Jamie Vardy away with the most delicately chipped ball over an advanced German defence, and it deserved a finish from the striker.

As the match went on it became clear that he held the key to unlocking their opponents, being involved in almost everything good about England’s attacking play, creating two chances in a matter of second-half minutes when he found the late runs of Jake Livermore and Eric Dier in imaginative fashion.

However, aside from these moments, his all-round demeanour showed awful amounts of promise, often holding off German midfielders whilst marauding forwards before threading a pass between a gap.

There was one particular occasion inside the final ten minutes when, despite giving his all for 80 minutes of end-to-end football, he still managed to find the energy within him to burst out of defence and put England back on the front foot, drawing in three players before squeezing a pass away.

The way Loftus-Cheek acquitted himself to the task at hand was admirable and he almost played without fear, showing no signs of being weighed down by the shirt as many others have been in recent years.

He showed signs of elegance and trickery yet he utilised all of his 6’3” frame to bully Germany at times, and the decision to award him man of the match was a fully justified and well-received one.

It is certainly no mean feat to make your international bow against the reigning world champions and leave with the accolade of being the best player on the pitch but it was simply testament to how Loftus-Cheek asserted himself onto proceedings, adding tempo to the hosts’ counter-attacking approach.

Speaking post-match, as relayed by BBC Sport, the youngster was delighted by his debut – and rightly so. He said:

“If we won it would have been better but I’m really happy. It was a really tactical game. It was good for us young players and I certainly learned a lot.

“The manager has said do your best. I had Gareth [Southgate] in charge for nearly three years at the Under-21s and the boys have been great. I’ve settled in really well and they gave me a platform to go out and play.”

Loftus-Cheek’s impressive debut could resonate far deeper than just a one-off friendly match though, not least with next year’s World Cup in Russia gradually growing closer on the horizon.

Yet as a nation we have to be careful.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that a certain someone called Jack Wilshere arrived on the scene at Arsenal before making his England bow and being largely dubbed as the next big British prospect.

Both expectation and injury have significantly stalled his career – almost to the point of no return considering his struggles to get into Arsene Wenger’s side – and it is important not to get too carried away about Loftus-Cheek’s potential despite his very impressive performance against the Germans.

That isn’t to say that he shouldn’t make the World Cup squad though, as based on Friday’s display against one of the best teams in the world the Palace midfielder is ready to take this huge step up.

Addressing thoughts of the World Cup, Loftus-Cheek remained coy, though:

“To go to the World Cup it’s a long season and I still have to improve. I have to keep learning and getting better and hopefully there’s a chance to get on the plane.”

Whilst Loftus-Cheek himself confessed that he needs to continue learning if he harbours any hope of making England’s World Cup squad, supporters alike will pray his development doesn’t stall.

The next step of his England career – after the friendly against Brazil on Tuesday – remains unclear though, with Alli almost certain to return to the fold and reclaim his role as the attacking midfielder.

Loftus-Cheek’s involvement then depends on how prepared Southgate is to move away from his formation used in qualifying and the usage of both Jordan Henderson and Dier – two very defensively-minded players – and whether the ex-Under 21 boss will be bold and drop one of them from his team.

Either way – and even if Loftus-Cheek doesn’t earn a starting berth – his impact as a squad player could be monumental, and there simply aren’t many homegrown players that can match up to him right now.

It’s likely that his competition for a World Cup berth will come in the shape of Wilshere himself, Jake Livermore and fellow debutant against Germany Jack Cork, and there’s nothing about those midfielders that Loftus-Cheek should be concerned about in his fight for a place on the plane to Russia.

Loftus-Cheek’s sudden emergence onto the international scene shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though as he’s been a rare bright spark in a troublesome start to the year for Crystal Palace.

The 21-year-old has been the player to drive Roy Hodgson’s side forward, creating nine Premier League chances in his nine appearances – a tally only bettered by Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend – and his 83% passing accuracy is the highest of anyone to feature eight times or more.

He has also shown his tendency to be penetrative and direct on the ball – as he proved at Wembley Stadium – by completing 23 of 31 take-ons, averaging just less than four direct dribbles each match.

It’s this attacking intent and consistent ability to pull off his daring moves that will excite most, potentially able to add a new box-to-box dimension in England’s midfield that’s long been vacant.

Nobody will argue that he’s far too good to be playing for a relegation-battling side but the concept of regular football until the end of the 2017-18 campaign will only be a good thing in his efforts to make Southgate’s World Cup squad, able to continue progression against top opposition each week.

Loftus-Cheek’s prior relationship with Southgate from their time spent together at Under-21 level will undoubtedly fall into his favour and it’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming months unfold.

It’s seemingly a quintessentially English thing to do when a player impresses on the international scene, to hype them up and set them up for a fall, but something seems different about Loftus-Cheek.

He has the manner of a man that’s been patiently waiting for his chance on both a domestic and national front – after all, he’s only made 30 Premier League appearances over the course of the past four seasons – and during that time he appears to have built up a thoroughly encouraging attitude.

As with anything, time will tell as to whether he has what it takes at the top level. But for now we should all give credit where credit is due, and look forward to the development of a fresh homegrown prodigy.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

Crystal Palace

Can Crystal Palace cope without the injured Wilfried Zaha?

With Wilfried Zaha out of action for the foreseeable future, Crystal Palace run the serious risk of relegation from the Premier League, writes Jake Jackman.

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Crystal Palace have been dealt a major blow in their battle against relegation as Wilfried Zaha has been ruled out for roughly a month with a knee injury.

The fleet-footed winger suffered the knock during the team’s home draw against Newcastle United and although he remained on the pitch, the damage was done.

In last week’s press conference, Roy Hodgson spoke about his star player and the quotes were reported by Sky Sports:

“It’s amazing Wilf was able to play so much of the game with the injury,”

“He’s a very quick healer and we’ll be working to get him back as soon as possible. He won’t play versus Everton though.

“If he recovered in a week or two it would be a fantastic effort, but it’s more realistic we’d have to wait a month for him. It’s not certain. He’ll be pushing the medical staff to come back as soon as possible.”

The player himself will want to return at the earliest opportunity as he was in great form and reaching the level that many expected him to reach when he was a teenager.

He is now the most important player for Crystal Palace, but his injury must be managed carefully as the side can’t afford to lose him for a longer period of time if he is rushed back.

In hindsight, it does look like a poor decision to keep him on the pitch against Newcastle, as he likely aggravated the problem during the match.

Despite their excellent form since the appointment of Hodgson, Palace remain deeply ingrained in the relegation battle due to their appalling start to the season.

At the time of writing, they are currently in 14th position and three points above the drop zone.

That doesn’t sound like a big gap, but as there are three teams between them and 18th position, they are in a good position to remain in the Premier League.

However, if their performances get worse in the absence of Zaha, they will be in real danger of falling down the table.

How important is Zaha?

It has become a sweeping generalisation to talk of Zaha as the most important player in this Palace team.

The winger is exciting to watch and is often the player that the team look towards for inspiration in the final third.

When he is playing well, he is difficult to stop and his dynamism often creates lots of chances for the side.

Crystal Palace have only lost five of the 20 matches that Zaha has featured in this season and three of those defeats came against top-six teams.

The Ivory Coast international suffered an injury during the opening match of the season and missed two months of action.

During this time, Palace failed to earn a single point or score a single goal in the Premier League.

For any person doubting the importance of the winger, that statistic is eye-opening.

His return came against current champions Chelsea and it was evident that him being named in the team lifted the rest of the players.

They were a rejuvenated side and delivered an excellent performance to secure their first points of the campaign.

Zaha was at the heart of everything that was good about the South London outfit and he scored the winner on the day.

In addition to his goal, the 25-year-old completed six dribbles and made two key passes.

Ordinarily players need time to catch up to speed, but he immediately found his stride and it was important that he did, as Palace were being cut adrift at the bottom of the division.

Since then, Palace have showed the form of a top-eight team and lost on only six occasions in all competitions.

The Eagles have tasted defeat 14 times this season and nine of those have now come when Zaha has been absent.

There is no doubting how vital he is to the team and that begs an interesting question: how will they cope without him over the coming month?

How can they cope without Zaha?

Although Palace have one of the stronger squads outside of the top-six, they have several other players injured and it is tough to see a natural replacement for Zaha.

Bakary Sako, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jason Puncheon are all creative players, but all of them are injured.

In addition to them, Hodgson also has to deal with the absences of Scott Dann, Martin Kelly, Julian Speroni and Jeffrey Schlupp.

That leaves them bare across the pitch.

Andros Townsend is going to be the player that the team need to step up and take on more responsibility, but he is very inconsistent.

The England international has scored only one goal this Premier League season.

That said, he has five assists and it could be his creativity that helps cover for the loss of Zaha.

The only other wide option is Lee Chung-yong, but he has played only three times in the league this season. It would be a tough ask for him to replace Zaha.

It could be that a change of system is required to facilitate for the loss of Zaha and a formation with two strikers could be the answer.

Alexander Sørloth signed on deadline day and is seen as a powerful striker capable of transitioning quickly to English football due to his physicality.

A potential partnership with Christian Benteke could be frightening for opposition defences.

The next month will shape Crystal Palace’s season. They need to prove to themselves that they can win matches without Zaha, but recent evidence suggests they will struggle.

Their next four matches see them face Everton, Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea.

There is a real chance they lose ground in the battle to stay up and without their best player, it looks even bleaker for them.

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Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace 1-1 Newcastle United: Three talking points from Selhurst Park

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Crystal Palace and Newcastle United played out a draw at Selhurst Park, but that didn’t do much to ease the relegation fears of both clubs. The home side have now lost only two of their last 15 Premier League matches, which underlines their improvement under Roy Hodgson. Meanwhile, Rafa Benitez will be encouraged by his side’s recent form, as they have lost just two of their last eight matches in the league, both of which came against Manchester City. Although neither set of supporters will be delighted by the result, the match showed that both sides are difficult to beat and that is a positive. Here are three talking points from the match:

Wilfried Zaha has found the consistency to match his talent

The winger has been fantastic to watch this season and there are few better in the Premier League at running with the ball. At times, it looks impossible to dispossess him as he weaves past six or seven challenges to create a chance for his team. Zaha completed three dribbles and made three key passes, which made him one of the most effective players in the final third on Sunday. He came close to scoring at one point, but his effort curled over the bar.

It was evident that Zaha was the player that the Newcastle defence feared and he consistently caused them problems down Palace’s right-hand side. Hodgson has got the best out of him in the final third, but his defensive work rate has been equally as impressive. He completed one tackle and one interception during the match. At the beginning of the second half, he burst a lung getting back to prevent a promising opening for Newcastle by intercepting a ball into Ayoze Perez. Under past managers, the 25-year-old wouldn’t have done that. The appointment of Hodgson may be looked back on as an important moment in the development of the Ivory Coast international.

Kenedy looks to be a great signing for Newcastle

This Newcastle United team has a lot of work rate and the players fight for the shirt, but they have looked short on quality up to this point. Rafa Benitez was vocal during the summer as he continually stated he needed more players, but he never once criticised those already at the club. It was important in January that they added some quality and Kenedy looks to be a great addition. He played his part in the first goal with another dangerous corner delivery.

Every time that he gets the ball, he looks dangerous and during his time on the pitch, he completed two dribbles and finished the game with an 86% pass success rate. That shows his quality and he is a player that Newcastle can look to for inspiration. His end product needs work, as he missed a good chance in the first half and dallied on the ball just after the break when he should have played in Ayoze Perez for a one-on-one chance. If he can continue to impress and improve in the final third, he could play a vital part in keeping the club in the top-flight.

The relegation fight will go down to the wire

It is becoming a common theme that matches such as these are becoming must not lose, rather than must win. Both managers appeared relatively pleased with a point after the match, but either side could have won it. Newcastle were excellent for the first half, but they chose to move to a more defensive style after the break. If they continued to commit bodies forward and pressed Palace high up the pitch when the score was 1-0, they would have had a great chance to increase their lead.

However, Palace’s recent run of form shows they are difficult to beat and that showed on Sunday. That said, they could have been more positive once they had the equaliser. They had new signing Alexander Sørloth on the bench, but they didn’t bring him on. He would have added another physical presence in the final third and could have caused chaos next to Christian Benteke. There are only seven points separating the bottom ten clubs and it is shaping up to be the most exciting relegation battles in recent seasons. Both of these teams will be hoping to climb clear over the coming weeks, but this point did little to stabilise their position.

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Arsenal

Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace: Three talking points from the Emirates

Rob Meech

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Arsenal
Photo: Reuters

A barnstorming first-half performance against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal record their first victory of 2018. Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette all scored in the opening 22 minutes to stun Crystal Palace. Arsenal could not add to their tally as the visitors stemmed the bleeding and replied with a late consolation through Luka Milivojevic.

This was a much-needed victory for Arsenal, whose ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a blow in recent weeks. Palace meanwhile, have been in impressive form since Roy Hodgson took charge, but this defeat has checked their progress. Here are three talking points from the Emirates…

Mesut Ozil steps up in Alexis Sanchez’s absence

With Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United rumoured to be nearing completion, this was a chance for Arsenal supporters to see how the team might shape up without him. Sanchez was excluded from the side that lost to Bournemouth last weekend, but his absence was hardly felt here.

That might have had something to do with the return of Mesut Ozil from injury. The Germany international was influential throughout, particularly in partnership with the rejuvenated Jack Wilshere. Ozil is sometimes accused of drifting in and out of games against top-quality opposition, but when he is given licence to express himself without defensive responsibility, there are few better players to watch in the Premier League.

Although he failed to get on the scoresheet, Ozil showed Gunners fans that there can be life after Sanchez. It should not be forgotten that Ozil is another Arsenal player in the final six months of his contract. Tying him down to a new deal must be a priority for the club.

A reality check for lacklustre Palace

After losing their first seven Premier League matches – without scoring a goal in the process – relegation seemed nailed on for Palace. The appointment of Hodgson was largely derided, but the former England boss has had a remarkable impact in a relatively short space of time at Selhurst Park.

Survival is by no means guaranteed, but such has been their upturn in form that it is hard to imagine the Eagles being sucked back into trouble. It says a lot about their progress that many thought an upset might have been on the cards. Palace, however, were left shell-shocked after Arsenal’s four-goal burst.

When the Gunners click, they can be irresistible. Palace fans need not be too alarmed, even if their defending was lax. In fact, they should be heartened that their players did not capitulate in the second period, with the game effectively over. Although Milivojevic’s goal was too, little too late, it was just reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Lacazette issues a timely reminder 

With a 3-0 advantage after just 13 minutes, Arsenal were in cruise control. But it was Lacazette’s goal, rounding off a superb team move to make it 4-0, that would have provided the biggest cheer. After hitting the ground running following his big-money transfer from Lyon last summer, the 26-year-old had endured a goal drought that stretched all the way back to December 2.

With questions being asked about his form, amid speculation that Arsenal are set to launch a raid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, this was a timely reminder that Lacazette has plenty to offer. His overall record of nine Premier League goals from 24 appearances is more than respectable for a newcomer to the English game.

Lacazette will hope that his goal against Palace can be the catalyst for another scoring run. Without Sanchez, the burden rests more heavily on the France international and if a move for Aubameyang does not materialise, he will have a big part to play in Arsenal’s push for the top four.

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