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Thomas Tuchel will expect Chelsea’s own Lionel Messi to return and complete Real Madrid repeat

Chelsea will welcome Real Madrid to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie

 

It has become something of a tradition after Chelsea’s Champions League knockout stage matches. As the crowd inside the host stadium begins to disperse and the television interviews take place by the side of the pitch, N’Golo Kante will walk out from the tunnel and be handed the man-of-the-match award by the UEFA delegate.

The obligatory photo follows, as does the fawning on social media. This is simply what Kante does when the Champions League reaches its latter stages. He showcased that once more against Lille in February with an excellent performance in the first leg, in which he teed up Christian Pulisic’s goal with a fine burst forward.

Yet that display has been something of an outlier for Kante in 2022. Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel even admitted as much after that 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge. “It was not the real N’Golo Kante in recent matches,” the German told BT Sport. “He has struggled a bit with his belief and in his intensity and in his game in general. It was good that he stepped up. He is our gamechanger.”

Tuchel is certainly not wrong. Kante transforms Chelsea from a very good team to a great one when at his best. Last season’s Champions League triumph firmly cemented that belief – the Frenchman was outlandish good in the knockout stages and was named man of the match after both legs of the semi-final against Real Madrid and the final in Porto against Manchester City.

There were no goals or assists in those games, but Kante’s influence and importance were akin to that of Lionel Messi at Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. Without him, the Blues would probably not have been able to call themselves champions of Europe over the past year. He was the true difference-maker — the MVP.

“I do question whether he’s human or not sometimes — because he does so many things that are superhuman,” said former Chelsea star Pat Nevin after one of Kante’s astounding performances. “He’s Eden Hazard’s standard [in dribbling], has Claude Makelele’s [in] tackling, and he’s got the energy level of Mo Farah.”

It’s that Kante that Chelsea will need against Real Madrid on Wednesday evening. Los Blancos will arrive at Stamford Bridge for the quarter-final first leg with a midfield trio – Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos – packed full of technical quality and top-level experience. There are few better around in the European game, but they do lack the physicality, energy and off-the-ball acumen of Kante.

“I remember when he had racked up the most interceptions in the Premier League,” former Chelsea goalkeeper and teammate of Kante, Rob Green, told football.london earlier this season. “I asked him to explain how he did that? What did he look for? How do you make the interception?”

“He said to me, ‘I stand there, watch the player, and think about where they will pass the ball. Then I go and stand in that space.’ It is that simple, but he is doing that against the very best players in the world and working it all out so quickly.

“It will be something like him taking three or four steps to the right – again in such an unassuming way – that you think that it was easy. But he’ll do it again. And again. He keeps on doing it against the best sides, keeps on finding a way to win back the ball.”

That wasn’t the case against Brentford on Saturday at Stamford Bridge – Kante was strangely ineffective as the Bees scored three goals in just ten minutes. The 31-year-old could do little to stem the tide, and it wasn’t a huge surprise that he was replaced after just 64 minutes by Mateo Kovacic.

There have been a few displays like that from Kante since the turn of the year. Lacklustre isn’t quite the word, but a certain vigour, his trademark tenaciousness, has been absent. And make no mistake, that can’t be the case against Real Madrid. Not if Chelsea wants to progress to the semi-finals.

Yet the Champions League has brought out the best of Kante over the past 12 months. And suppose the France international can flick the switch and rediscover his inspiring destructive form. In that case, Chelsea will have the gamechanger they require to reaffirm their position as one of the most feared sides in European football.

 

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