Wednesday 24 October 2018

Barkley 'fitter than ever' and ready to deliver

Ross Barkley believes he will flourish under Maurizio Sarri’s coaching at Chelsea. Photo: Getty Images
Ross Barkley believes he will flourish under Maurizio Sarri’s coaching at Chelsea. Photo: Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

Ross Barkley's sole stated focus might be jump-starting a Chelsea career that has remained largely stalled but, when you are a prodigy about whom comparisons have ranged from Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney to Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack, it is inevitable that expectations around you are easily stirred.

And so, having already started as many games in two weeks under Maurizio Sarri as he did in four months with Antonio Conte, one of the most uplifting aspects of Chelsea's pre-season has been the emergence of a super-fit, injury-free and apparently confident Barkley.

Chelsea continue their summer preparations at the Aviva Stadium tonight against Arsenal and the contrast with when Barkley made his Blues debut against the Gunners is stark.

The Stamford Bridge club were beaten 2-1 in that League Cup semi-final and Barkley, after finding himself on the receiving end of a Conte blast for how long it took to get ready following Willian's 30th-minute injury, understandably struggled in what was his first match for eight months.

Conte's later words then may also have stung - "it is not simple, especially when on the bench the only substitute is Ross Barkley" - and the former Everton midfielder played only three more times for Chelsea last season.

Scar

The big caveat, however, remains very visibly evident on the back of Barkley's leg in the form of a 10-inch scar that was the result of surgery last August on his left hamstring. He also underwent a groin operation last summer.

"I arrived here with a long-term injury," Barkley stressed. "I didn't play many games because of that and a few niggles, little grade ones (muscle tears) from recovering and getting used to working hard.

"But I didn't see it as a waste of time because, from the time that I joined in January, I've got my body feeling better than ever before.

"I have done everything I could perfectly. I felt strong towards the end of the season and then, in the off-season, worked hard with the strength and conditioning coach.

"I got myself really fit just to give myself a head start. I am really prepared and I feel at home with the team now."

Barkley certainly looks lean and, in being given licence so far to drive forward in support of the strikers in Sarri's new 4-3-3 formation, has already begun making a plausible case for a regular starting place.

It is a competitive area of the squad, especially after the £57m arrival of Jorginho but, at his best, Barkley does offer something rather different.

And, just as he seemed to prefer the arm-around-the-shoulder management style of Roberto Martinez to the rather more blunt Ronald Koeman, he does also appear suited to the cheery Sarri and his repeated desire for "fun" over the sometimes volcanic presence of Conte.

Barkley has been enjoying the input, too, of Gianfranco Zola and has a simple ambition this season.

"To keep learning. The new manager obviously has a different style to our previous manager.

"There will be freedom because you have three men in the midfield. You can go forward, get close to the box, have shots, try to create but obviously we have to be disciplined and organised without the ball.

"I want to be scoring goals, creating goals and, towards the end of the season, there will hopefully be a prize, with a trophy or a couple of trophies. One step at a time, but I'm hoping to start the season really strong."

There is of course another very obvious and increasingly alluring target for any young English player. A national football team which, under Gareth Southgate, again feels loved by the vast majority of their fans after reaching the World Cup semi-final in Russia.

Barkley had been part of Roy Hodgson's squad at the 2014 tournament and it is fully two years since he played the most recent of his 22 England games.

Yet at the age still of only 24, he is very much viewed by Southgate as a part of this new generation.

"I kept in touch with a few of the lads during the summer and was wishing them well," said Barkley.

"I have been in one squad under Gareth Southgate and seen the direction. They've really improved. It has been out with the old and in with the new.

"Unfortunately, with my injuries, I wasn't able really to leave an impression to get back into the team.

"It is very exciting and you see that with the younger age groups. They are winning World Cups and doing very well with developing players differently.

"You see the quality and confidence that they have got to give in the future.

"In the next World Cup or next Euros, there may be even more talent mixed in with experience.

"To earn a regular spot at Chelsea is my main focus. If I do well at Chelsea, then the national team will take care of itself but one of my goals is to get back in the England set-up. I am ready to kick on this season." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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