As Ruben Loftus-Cheek offered a timely reminder of his potential, one glaring statistic stood out. This talented young footballer has still played more minutes for England this season than he has for Chelsea in the Premier League.
If any individual’s situation surmises the peculiar and exasperating life of a young English hope at a leading Premier League club, it is surely the fate of Loftus-Cheek.
His lot for England is not much shout about this season, either. Just the 61 minutes, in the least important game of the campaign, the friendly win over Switzerland. In the Premier League, it is almost half that amount, with a combined 33 minutes against modest opponents in Bournemouth and Huddersfield.
CHELSEA (4-3-3): Kepa, Zappacosta, Cahill, Christensen, Emerson, Fabregas, Kovacic (Kante 77), Loftus-Cheek, Willian (Moses 57), Pedro (Hudson-Odoi 60), Giroud.
Subs not used: Caballero, Rudiger, Barkley, Morata.
Goals: Loftus-Cheek 2, 8, 54
Manager: Maurizio Sarri
BATE BORISOV (4-3-3): Scherbitski; Rios, Filipovic, Filipenko, Volodko; Hleb (Ivanic 59), Dragun, Baga (Yablonski 76); Skavysh, Signevich (Tuominen 71), Stasevich
Subs not used: Berezkin, Volkov, Chickan, Moukam.
Goals: Rios 80
Manager: Alyaksey Baha
Referee: Paolo Mazzoleni (Italy)
On both occasions, Chelsea were winning and in control. So he is not perceived by Maurizio Sarri as a difference-maker and his outings have almost worn the feel of an apologetic offering by the Italian to save him the next bout of hassle in a press conference.
Most remarkably, 922 days and two managers have now passed since Loftus-Cheek last started a Premier League match for Chelsea.
A starting place here, therefore, as meek and modest as Bate Borisov may be, represented dizzy heights for Loftus-Cheek in a Chelsea shirt.
As far as auditions go, it was a blistering one. By scoring a hat-trick, he joined club legends Didier Drogba, Gianluca Vialli, Tommy Baldwin, Peter Osgood and Terry Venables as only the sixth player to score a hat-trick in European competition for Chelsea. So if he had a point to prove, it was emphatically made.
His first contribution was most memorable for passing a ball out of play and Sarri shaking his head.
Thankfully matters improved quickly and by the hour mark, Chelsea supporters were singing ‘Loftus-Cheek, he’s one of our own’ and for all the club’s relentless success under Roman Abramovich, homegrown talent is the one ingredient they have been missing.
The home support were further encouraged when Callum Hudson-Odoi, an U-17 World Cup winner with England last year, arrived for the final half-hour.
His first major statement came inside 103 seconds as Loftus-Cheek timed his run perfectly to meet a low cross from Davide Zappacosta and fire Chelsea into an early lead.
These matches against feeble European opponents are always more straightforward when you strike early and the game was done and dusted inside eight minutes. It was Loftus-Cheek again, holding off his marker inside the six-yard box and hooking Willian’s corner into the goal.
For Chelsea, it made for a pleasant evening and if not food for thought, it may at least leave manager Maurizio Sarri with more cigarette butts to chew as he plots the future of Loftus-Cheek.
Loftus-Cheek, who may also have earned a penalty when pushed to the ground by Stanislaw Dragun in the second-half, sealed his hat-trick when a curling right-footed strike from distance passed through the grasp of goalkeeper.
His was a rampant, dominant performance and he may have had a fourth when he galloped onwards beyond the Bate defence and forced a fine stop from the goalkeeper.
The positives were spread throughout a Chelsea side that featured eight changes from the weekend draw against Manchester United, where Andreas Christensen’s father may have been appeased by his son’s return to the back four and Cesc Fabregas, without a minute of play in the Premier League this season, ran the midfield.
There was a clue, too, for Sunday’s trip to Burnley, as Ross Barkley, who scored against United, was rested and Mateo Kovacic started.
It was, in truth, an night of almost embarrassing ease. Chelsea had over 20 shots on goal and the visitors’ late consolation only came when Chelsea switched off at a set-play and Aleksey Rios stabbed in at the far post.
Nevertheless, Group L of the Europa League has been all but wrapped up before the clocks go back. Chelsea are a Champions League team operating in the Europa League and the chasm between the two sides was bewildering at times. Fabregas, operating as a quarter-back, had the freedom of the Bridge to dictate play, almost releasing Willian with a piercing 60 yard ball over the top.
On a night Stamford Bridge was spared the latest episode of Alvaro Morata’s personal trauma, Olivier Giroud stepped into the breach looking to end his own run of 636 minutes without a goal in a Chelsea shirt.
The Frenchman, as ever, led the line gallantly but he was slow to react when fed by Willian and was denied by fine defending when attacking a Willian cross. He then spun Yahor Filipenko and struck powerfully goal, only to be denied by a fine save. His wait goes on and for one night only, Chelsea revolved only around Loftus-Cheek.