N’Golo Kante was player of the match in both Champions League semi-final legs against Real Madrid and in the final against Manchester City last season. He went full Kante in all three of those games: stealing possession; breaking up play; driving forward; creating chances. But that Kante – the one who takes hold of a game of football and refuses to give it back – has been an infrequent presence for Chelsea this season. The many miles run appear to be catching up with him and this Champions League campaign could, and perhaps should, be his last hurrah for Chelsea.
Kante has started just 15 Premier League games under Thomas Tuchel this season and has had four separate injury lay-offs. When he has been in the team, he’s rarely played with the verve and intensity that could be proffered as his middle name, suggesting every aspect of his midfield machinery isn’t quite running smoothly.
Similar was said at the same stage last season, with his performances in the latter stages of the Champions League making those who questioned him look very daft indeed. But that was the start of a trend that’s seen Kante move towards becoming an outstanding footballer who can put in outstanding performances, rather than an outstanding footballer who is always outstanding.
If Chelsea can eke out five further optimum Kante displays they have an excellent chance of retaining their Champions League crown. And given his propensity for injury this season they should be wrapping him in cotton wool for those games. Chelsea don’t need Kante to finish third or fourth in the Premier League, but they need him to win the Champions League.
After that, Chelsea would be wise to sell him. He’s 31 and his contract expires in the summer of 2023, at which point he could leave for nothing. As the club are about to find out, allowing players’ contracts to run down is costly. They could lose all three of Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen this summer. With money likely an object going forward, those players could easily have earned them £100m combined.
Replacing Kante will be impossible – there’s no-one like him and therefore by definition no-one as good. But Conor Gallagher could play and thrive in that role for Chelsea. He’s been brilliant on loan at Crystal Palace this season and offers the goals and creativity from midfield that Chelsea lack. If Tuchel had to choose between peak Kante and peak Gallagher it would be an easy choice, but Gallagher’s stock is rising while Kante’s falls.
Tuchel would want to keep Kante in an ideal world, but Chelsea no longer live in one. Whoever takes over will not have the bottomless pockets of Roman Abramovich, and with the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge a necessary priority, money will be tight. They will be in no position to turn down £40m for Kante.
A deep foray into the Champions League this season will improve Kante’s chances of one last big move in his career, with one particular suitor – who have long been interested in the midfielder – likely to be looking for any cheat code to win the competition that continues to allude them. PSG wanted Kante when he moved to Stamford Bridge and have been linked with him periodically ever since. Having signed pale imitations of Kante, they are likely still interested in the real thing, with Idrissa Gueye and Danilo Pereira mere methadone to the Kante crack cocaine.
It will be rough for Chelsea without the Frenchman. Although his reduced role this season means they won’t be going cold turkey, they will no longer be able to fall back on the fix when they need it most. But five more fixes should do the trick for Chelsea, starting with Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. Rack up the Kante.
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