Loftus-Cheek faces test for Blues spot

Antonio Conte has insisted that Diego Costa (left) is not for sale and that he is a "player of fundamental importance".
Antonio Conte has insisted that Diego Costa (above) is not for sale and that he is a "player of fundamental importance".PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON • Antonio Conte is considering abandoning his plans to sign another central midfielder this summer because of his belief in the potential of Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The England Under-21 midfielder is understood to have made a big impression on Conte in training over the past seven days, and Chelsea's new manager is hoping that the 20-year-old will develop into a big part of his first-team squad after being used sparingly by Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink last season.

Loftus-Cheek started Chelsea's first pre-season fixture against Rapid Vienna last weekend and, if he continues to impress, he could solve a problem for the club.

Chelsea's proposed move for Radja Nainggolan, the Belgium midfielder, has collapsed as a result of Roma's valuation and the Blues were still planning to sign another combative midfielder after completing the transfer of N'Golo Kante at the weekend. Loftus-Cheek, however, could provide an alternative.

Conte's priority now is signing an additional centre-back, with Kalidou Koulibaly and Kostas Manolas his leading targets. He may choose to give Loftus-Cheek a chance to prove himself with a view to signing another midfield player next January if required.

Much will depend on which players stay at Chelsea, because Nemanja Matic is wanted by Juventus and Cesc Fabregas' future is uncertain because of Conte's doubts over whether the Spaniard can successfully operate in his preferred 4-4-2 system.

Chelsea are also attempting to sign Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, but that transfer will not affect the future of Diego Costa, with Conte insisting on Tuesday that the Spain striker is not for sale.

The club's hierarchy are growing increasingly frustrated at what they view as Atletico Madrid's attempts to unsettle Costa.

Having already written to the Spanish club once, requesting that they refrain from fuelling transfer speculation, Chelsea are considering complaining again.

"Diego is our player," Conte said. "He is a fantastic player, a player of a fundamental importance and there is no problem. He stays with us, he is working very hard, he is very happy to work with his team-mates and with me."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2016, with the headline 'Loftus-Cheek faces test for Blues spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe