N'Golo Kante pulls the strings in another exemplary performance
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In 26 days’ time, N’Golo Kante could hold every major honour in the club and international game. Only the European Championship is missing from a collection that has encompassed glory in the World Cup, Europa League and Champions League in a mere three years. It is unlikely he would mark the moment too lavishly, given his aversion to materialism and his renown for parking his Mini among his Chelsea team-mates’ fleet of supercars. But it would be a totemic feat worthy of the continent’s finest playmaker, one whose Munich masterclass on Tuesday evening reaffirmed his talent for bending any game to his will.
Has there been any defensive midfielder who has so effortlessly combined speed, anticipation, even temperament and exquisitely-timed tackling? Where others struck discordant notes, not least Antoine Griezmann with a spate of heavy touches, Kante’s performance was symphonic. He was, as so often, like the drummer with perfect timing while the band in front of him strayed into self-indulgent solos.
“The midfielder works in the shadows,” as France coach Didier Deschamps, a masterful exponent of the same art in his day, has put it this week. “From time to time, lights get shone on them. That is the case for Kante now. He is the first name that any coach notes down in his starting XI.”
This is no hyperbolic judgment. Where most players in Kante’s position fall in and out of favour, he has the extraordinary distinction of being loved by almost every manager who has mentored him. For Antonio Conte at Chelsea, he was indispensable, and for Thomas Tuchel he is a privilege to coach, the player about whom the German “has been dreaming” all his career.
Even against a ragged, half-paced Germany, Kante justified all these lyrical tributes. There were the lightning five-metre darts, the languid give-and-gos, the preternatural sense of positioning. It was the type of display to give Ilkay Gundogan, who had faced him just 2½ weeks earlier in the Champions League final, the most fitful sleep. Off the pitch, he can be positively mouse-like in his reserve. But in games of the greatest magnitude, a startling transformation occurs, as he becomes at once conductor and disruptor. Not for nothing does every opponent fear him: he once dispossessed Andres Iniesta, of all people, three times in 13 seconds.
Kante gets stuck in
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It was Claude Makelele who established the template for Kante’s devilish art. But where Makelele was remarkably consistent, his successor for France has arguably reinvented the oeuvre, an omnipresent force who almost never misjudges an interception or misplaces a pass. He was in his element as France massed men behind the ball in the second half, soaking up any German pressure with such ease that he seemed to be going through training-ground drills.
For five years, Kante has been a cult figure for Chelsea fans, so lightly does he wear his skills. Given his resistance to immodesty, he lets others write the accolades for him. It is the supporters who have designed T-shirts with the claim: “They say 70 per cent of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by N’Golo Kante.” When informed of this, he delivered perhaps the most Kante-esque response: “It’s just football, my friends. There are more important things than covering the Earth.”
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For now, his target is to do as Deschamps did as a player over two decades ago, following up his triumph in the World Cup with another at European level. That target is within France’s grasp on the evidence of this surprisingly one-sided affair. This was supposed to be the dazzling showpiece of the Franco-German axis, the collision of two juggernauts who would give no quarter, and yet it was France who showed just how far they have forged ahead since 2018. Where Kante pulled the strings, Kylian Mbappe squeezed the throttle, tearing Germany’s defence to ribbons to set up a Karim Benzema strike judged only narrowly offside.
Joachim Löw has timed his departure to perfection. For the story he has spent 15 years scripting, one that started in the wake of Germany’s desolating exit from their own World Cup, is reaching its epilogue. Quite simply, this was not the same team who put seven past Brazil or who beat Argentina in Rio de Janeiro just five days later. This was a side wearing the scars of a traumatic recent past, not least a 6-0 loss to Spain and a humbling by North Macedonia. By their standards, this was a capitulation, and the man to blame was the ubiquitous Kante.
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