In five years, N’Golo Kante has won six major trophies – he always performs
Champions League exploits make him a worthy consideration for the Ballon d’Or
There’s never been a player like him, certainly one not born to the English game
He is no Henry or Ronaldo, but may go down as England’s greatest foreign player
LONDON – N’Golo Kante’s feet did not touch the ground. First, Kurt Zouma swept him up in both arms like a big baby, and paraded him around the pitch. When he put him down, others rushed over and did the same.
Kante became a human trophy. Everyone wanted to touch him, kiss him, hold him aloft for the world to see. He even got a hug from Roman Abramovich.
There has never been a player like him, certainly one not born to the English game. True, Carlos Tevez has also won the Champions League and titles with two Premier League clubs. Yet although he was invaluable for Manchester United in their triumphs, he only played 13 games in his title-winning campaign with Manchester City and, for much of it, was a pain in the neck, in exile in Argentina and in opposition to coach Roberto Mancini.
By contrast, Kante is the archetypal selfless, flawless diamond: 37 out of 38 games to win the league with Leicester, 35 of 38 with Chelsea, and now this. It is a stellar panel that fronts the biggest Champions League fixtures for BT Sport these days. In both legs of the semi-final with Real Madrid, and now the final, the man of the match award has been given to Kante.
Not that you would know it. He was one of the last to be paraded in front of the cameras and had to be ushered forward by his team-mates to lift the trophy before the travelling support, almost under duress.
As footage of dancing, partying Chelsea players was beamed out from the dressing room, some were aping for the cameras, Ben Chilwell had a scarf around his head Banzai-style. Kante was hiding. It is possible to imagine he was outside helping the backroom staff load up the team bus.
He’s that sort of guy. Asked if there was a better player in the world in his position, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta initially gave a one-word answer. ‘No,’ he said. The facts back this up.
In the past five years, Kante has won the World Cup, the Champions League, the Europa League, two Premier League titles and the FA Cup. Those six trophies have been collected under five managers. This is a player guaranteed to perform, no matter who directs the show.
Against Manchester City, he won 100 per cent of his tackles without conceding a single foul. And at the end, as his team-mates celebrated with glamorous wives and girlfriends, Kante melted a million more hearts by getting a great big hug from his mum.
Might a defensive midfield player, not even quite a box to box, win the Ballon d’Or in 2021? He surely deserves consideration. No doubt by the time the votes are cast Robert Lewandowski will have scored another 20 to go with his 48 this season for Bayern Munich and Kante’s less showy brilliance will be relegated to a supporting role. And while that isn’t strictly fair, one presumes he’s not much bothered either way.
When Kante spoke of the night he never once mentioned his own role. He talked of ‘the work of the whole season’; that the team ‘suffered’ together against a strong Manchester City team; he highlighted the ‘effort’ to get the result and his pride in the ‘group’.
It will be left to others to point out that one particular Kante tackle on Kevin De Bruyne — completely legitimate unlike the body-check by Antonio Rudiger that put him out of the game — encapsulated the determination of Chelsea’s performance. He took him down with a cheetah’s speed and no less ferocity, yet cleanly, fairly and without drama.
Kante is no Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo, yet he may go down as the greatest foreign player this country has ever seen, in terms of his achievements. Leicester do not win the league without him, and Leicester’s title is arguably the greatest of them all. When Azpilicueta expanded on his initial one-word answer it was a tribute to Kante that glowed with wider admiration and respect.
‘He does everything with the energy he brings,’ Azpilicueta said. ‘I don’t know how many ball recoveries he had, but the way he then dragged it forward and covered so much ground, he’s special. When we didn’t have him, we missed him.
‘Yet after winning the World Cup, winning the Champions League, he is still so humble as a person. I’m so happy for him because he’s a massive part of this team and I’m so very happy to have him next to me.’
Who wouldn’t be? Pep Guardiola, perhaps. He showed what he thought of Kante’s position by deploying Ilkay Gundogan there.
Guardiola explained his reasoning after — Gundogan had played the role before and he thought his passing could release the exceptional talents ahead — but results in finals have a way of taking a sock full of lead to justifications and this was one of those occasions. It seems perverse to accuse the finest mind in the modern game of using it too much, but to opt for a starting XI who have not played before this season and to leave out two players, Rodri and Fernandinho, who have featured as a pair or as individuals in every match bar two this season, is perverse.
Graham Taylor, when he was England manager, was prone to throwing curveballs into team selections in big games. Yet Taylor always felt he did not receive the respect his career merited. Maybe he wanted too badly to prove his detractors wrong, to show them who had the real football brain.
What then is Guardiola’s motivation? All he hears is genius, genius, genius… He has nothing to prove to anybody. Had he picked the type of Manchester City XI that has dominated the league in the second half of the season it would not have been considered safe, or conservative. It is still an XI, and a fantastic way of playing, that has been fashioned by his coaching intellect.
Maybe Chelsea’s secret is that they take their opportunities. Not in games — if anything that has been the weakness this season — but in the transfer market, the managerial market.
Abramovich is still barred by visa issues from watching his team in England, but it was fitting that he was here to share in their success. He is the man who consistently finds funds to address the flaws in his teams, who makes bold, often unpopular decisions, at the first hint a regime is failing. He sacks Frank Lampard and Jose Mourinho, he will go again for Harry Kane or Erling Haaland if he senses that is what Thomas Tuchel needs to close the gap on City further.
And it is, Timo Werner having another one of those nights in which Chelsea win despite his performance in front of goal rather than because of his contributions. With Kane in Werner’s place this game could have been done by half-time.
Again we must insert caveats that he works enormously hard, he’s quick, and gets into excellent scoring positions, yet if he then misses his kick entirely, as happened after 10 minutes here, it renders those attributes irrelevant.
‘Two or three players could be very, very good,’ said Tuchel. ‘It’s a constant thing to never deny change. Then you always bring new energy, new guys who question the old beliefs, who challenge everybody in the training and the matches. I think it’s a good thing.
‘We don’t need another seven like last summer and a complete turnover because we still have a young squad and they are capable of growing and evolving. But we have some other ideas, of course, to make the group stronger. I think this can always be a positive thing to challenge us.’
And then he rejoined his players in the dressing room. Spraying champagne like a crazed Grand Prix winner. Meanwhile Kante, for the first time in a wonderful night for Chelsea, was absolutely nowhere to be seen.