Ross Barkley made his Chelsea home debut in late January as a substitute in the 3-0 win over Newcastle United in the FA Cup 4th round. The man he replaced that day is about three years his senior, and while that isn’t a great difference generally speaking, in the shortened timeframe of a professional football career, it can be the difference between prospect, prime, and decline.

That man was Eden Hazard, who will turn 28 next time January 7th comes around on the calendar, which is less than three months away. He’s grown up right before our eyes over the past six years, and he’s now on the wrong side of the squad’s median age. Time flies when you’re having fun. Judging by his soul-searching about his long-term future, Eden himself is feeling the passage of time rather keenly.

Watching the new generation come into the team will underline those feeling as well, though when it comes to Ross Barkley, those are happy, hopeful feelings as well.

“I remember that I was watching him at Everton. So, he is still young, I think he is a good player for the future of Chelsea. When you have confidence, you play more often. At the moment, he is playing, he played in the Europa League and today (Sunday). He is playing 75 minutes.

”Confidence comes when you play games. So, I think he is a fantastic player. I think Ross, if you give him the freedom to play and the confidence on the pitch that he can be one of the best in the world in midfield. He is strong, powerful, can dribble, he is clever, shoot and score. He has everything to be the best. I think he is a fantastic midfielder and, if he has the players around him to help him play, then he can be one of the best.”

Playing with the best players is certainly helpful for any player’s development — it’s one of the best arguments against sending players on loan, though ironically, Barkley’s presence at the club has certainly not made it any easier for Chelsea Academy prospects to stay and play — but Barkley’s own dedication and hard work should not be understated either.

And on Sunday, we saw all that promise and improvement in action. Sarri may have tempered expectations with his post-match comments, but Hazard is all-in on the hype train.

“He played a fantastic game today. Of course, it is not just because he scored and got an assist. I think he is strong, you can see on the pitch that he is very strong. He had some bad moments last year and two years ago with injury but I think he can reach a fantastic level because he is a fantastic player.”

-Eden Hazard; source: Chelsea FC

Two events, separated by 27 minutes on Sunday at St Mary’s showed why the number of believers in Ross Barkley is growing.

The first event came in the 30th minute. Barkley challenged Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, won the ball, kept his cool, found Eden Hazard to his right and slotted an inch-perfect pass that Hazard fired into the back of the net with an unstoppable shot.

The second event came in the 57th minute. Barkley has the size to be in the mix for free kicks, and he led the charge to the goal line as Willian chipped in the kick. Olivier Giroud bicycle-kicked the delivery across the face of the goal and Barkley’s knee was there to score his first goal in a Blue shirt.

Tenacity, tackling, vision, anticipation, and even a bit of finishing. What’s not to like?

Barkley probably got the starting nod on Sunday because Mateo Kovačić needed a rest after playing the entire match against MOL Vidi on Thursday. But nobody forced Sarri into playing Kovačić. He likely had a good idea that Barkley could start on Sunday, and the coach who’s supposedly so reluctant to rotate away from his usual first-choice was comfortable with it, even with Premier League points at stake in an away match.

That speaks volumes about how far Ross Barkley has come in the last few months. A bright future lies ahead for the 24 year-old. Perhaps one of the brightest, even, if Hazard is to be believed.

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