NICE, France -- Six months into his Chelsea career, Ross Barkley is finally ready for it to begin.
Promising flashes in preseason friendlies against Perth Glory and Inter Milan have raised hopes that Barkley could thrive this season under new head coach Maurizio Sarri, a man renowned for improving footballers blessed with such a combination of physical and technical gifts.
"I'm taking each day at a time, but step by step I'm feeling stronger and ready for the season," he said after Chelsea's penalty shootout victory over Inter in a friendly at the Allianz Riviera on Saturday.
"We have been working really hard, double sessions every day, getting ready for each game and we are all feeling better each day. I'm starting games, so my body feels as good as it has ever felt before. To be starting games, kicking on from there, getting my base layer fitness for the season, it's going well."
Barkley has become a forgotten man of English football since moving to Stamford Bridge from Everton for £15 million in January, a price so startlingly low that it prompted Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson to call for a police investigation into the deal. [
He made just two Premier League appearances in the second half of the campaign under Antonio Conte, who described him as a "complete player" but was slow to trust his new charge as he battled back from the severe hamstring injury that derailed his progress and delayed his Everton exit.
"With the type of injury that I had, you do get little niggles," Barkley admitted. "I had a few little grade ones from recovering and getting used to working hard and getting my body right again.
"But I didn't see it as a waste of time, from the time that I joined in January because I got my body feeling better than it has ever felt before. I feel fit and strong now and I know that I will go into this season feeling strong and ready."
Barkley got nowhere near enough time on the pitch for Chelsea to earn a place at the World Cup, and was forced to watch from afar as Gareth Southgate's men became the first England side in 28 years to reach the semi-finals, recapturing the imagination of the country in the process.
"I kept in touch with a few of the lads and I was wishing them well," he revealed. "I have been in one squad under Gareth Southgate and I have seen the direction that the team is going in. They have really improved in the last couple of years. You can see that it has been out with the old and in with the new."
Not 25 until December, Barkley is still young enough to be part of that new wave, even if it feels like he has been a "prospect" on the Premier League scene forever. The arrival of Sarri has also created a potential opening for him at Chelsea, with the Italian favouring an expansive 4-3-3 system built around a dynamic midfield.
Barkley has started both of Chelsea's preseason friendlies on the left of a three-man midfield, instructed to push forward and exploit pockets of space. Sarri's insistence on quick decisions also appears to be having a particularly profound effect on a player frequently criticised for holding on to the ball too long at Everton.
"There will be freedom because you have three men in the midfield," he explained. "Going forward, getting close to the box, having shots, trying to create. Obviously we have to be disciplined and organised without the ball, being well drilled. It's a new style and we are all learning day by day."
It is clear that Barkley knows how vital this season is. He cut short his summer holidays to undertake an individual training regimen with a fitness coach before reporting at Cobham, and since Sarri's arrival he has listened carefully to the new head coach and his assistant, Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is similarly determined. Having overtaken Barkley in the England reckoning he returned to Cobham on Monday, more than a week early from his post-World Cup break, in a bid to impress Sarri and gain clarity on his Chelsea future before the Premier League transfer deadline on Aug. 9.
With marquee summer signing Jorginho entrenched at the base of midfield and N'Golo Kante almost certain to start alongside him, Barkley and Loftus-Cheek may well find themselves battling for one starting spot at Chelsea, as well as the England platform that such a role provides.
Barkley is taking it one step at a time but, after a year spent in football purgatory, his outlook is getting brighter. "To earn a regular spot at Chelsea is my main focus," he insisted. "If I do well at Chelsea, then the national team will take care of itself.
"Chelsea is a massive club. You aim to win the Premier League or are challenging for trophies with the aim to win everything. I am focusing on what I can do for my club right now, but one of my goals is to get back in the England setup and to keep progressing.
"I am working day-by-day, giving it my all and I am ready to kick on this season."