If you take a look at the still images from when the referee blew the full-time whistle on Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City in Saturday’s Champions League final, one man remains standing tall.
Of course, the only person who refused to drop to his knees in exhaustion was N’Golo Kante.
The Frenchman put in one of the all-time great central midfield performances in Portugal, bossing the Citizens from start to finish, and adding another gold winners medal to his ever-growing collection.
He’s got previous for this, of course.
Kante was the engine behind the most unlikely Premier League title success in 2016, carrying Danny Drinkwater and the rest of the Leicester City heroes to unthinkable heights. He rightly earned his move to Chelsea from there, and inspired them to storm reclaim the trophy for themselves.
A year later, he won the FA Cup and more importantly, the World Cup with France. 12 months further down the line, he lifted the Europa League with Chelsea. And in 2021, he has added another piece of famous silverware to the trophy cabinet – the Champions League.
What we can conclude from this is that this is no coincidence. There is a reason every team which deploys Kante in the heart of their midfield ends up winning football matches at the highest level. That reason is Kante is one of the finest central midfielders that we are likely to see.
The other frightening fact is he keeps on improving, too. He has transformed from a defensive midfielder to the ultimate box-to-box runner, shielding his backline while simultaneously pressing the ball high up the pitch and dragging his team up the field with lung-busting runs.
He demonstrated his newly-honed art in Saturday’s triumph, almost single-handedly stopping Man City’s three attack-minded midfielders in their tracks. Was it arrogance from Pep Guardiola to not play a holding midfielder, or did he believe that attack was the best form of defence on the night?
Whatever thought process he pondered, he did not take into account the might of Kante. The midfielder was all over Kevin De Bruyne in the first half, sticking tight to the creative Belgian and snaking out a boot to dispossess him at every turn.
He did this brilliantly in the second half, too, producing a standout moment of genuine defensive quality to stop the creator. De Bruyne was bearing down on the backtracking Chelsea defence, readying himself to pull the trigger or deliver the killer pass, when from nowhere Kante arrived to offer an exhibition on the lesser-seen ‘clean sliding tackle from behind’.
It was glorious. As the game progressed, Kante only grew in stature, robbing Man City of possession as they pushed for an equaliser and sparking lightning counter-attacks against the Citizens’ fragile backline.
He was at the heart of everything, and indeed, he was the heartbeat of that midfield. Kante’s presence made Chelsea’s two-man partnership of the Frenchman and Jorginho feel like a compact four-man wall against Guardiola’s three, denying all space and limiting Man City to less than a handful of shots at goal.
At the final whistle, Kante was greeted with such love and affection by his teammates, who mustn’t believe their luck that they play alongside such a selfless and altruistic footballer. The World Cup winner may hide from the limelight when he can, but he can’t be afforded that luxury anymore.
He is one of the greatest in his position to have played the game – and deserves to be celebrated as such.