Kante: French hero back in business | Football News - Hindustan Times
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Kante: French hero back in business

ByDhiman Sarkar, Kolkata
Jun 23, 2024 12:31 PM IST

Deschamps’ punt on midfielder vindicated in successive MoM performances

Nine minutes in, William Saliba had checked Memphis Depay by preventing the Dutch striker from turning but the ball remained in an area goalkeeper Mike Maignan could not reach. Before any one from Netherlands could, N’ Golo Kante mopped up things and a move that could have stretched France petered out.

N'golo Kante runs with the ball during the UEFA Euro 2024 Group D football match between the Netherlands and France.(AFP)
N'golo Kante runs with the ball during the UEFA Euro 2024 Group D football match between the Netherlands and France.(AFP)

Two games into the European championship and it is evident that the Kante on show is of the Chelsea vintage which was an improved version of the player who had won the Premier League with Leicester City in 2015-16. After Friday night’s matches, no player had covered as much distance as Kante’s 22.8km. If Kante had 73 touches in against Austria, Kante improved it by one in the 0-0 draw against Netherlands.

He also created three chances, one of them to Antoine Griezmann who couldn’t keep the shot on target. France are struggling for goals but with Kante around, the chances will come. Four touches in the opposition box and four duels won explained why Kante was adjudged player of the match for the second straight time. In a match full of attacking talent, it was this tireless box-to-box midfielder who was adjudged best.

Didier Deschamps is known for many things: beavering in midfield so that the stars around him twinkled for club and country, moulding France into a team that has grown, won the World Cup, Nations League and transitioned without impacting performance are but two of them. On Friday, after the match, he also showed a wry sense of humour. “N’Golo is still out there running,,” said the France coach.

And then he got serious. “But he doesn't only run. He also has a capacity to carry the ball up the field, which is important to complement our other players in midfield so we have variety and we are not always predictable."

Kante was known to do that till a hamstring injury got him to miss the 2022 World Cup finals. When he moved to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad, it looked like a wonderful career in which Kante won the Champions League, Premier League and the World Cup – in Russia, the French fans never forgot to sing that he had stopped Lionel Messi – was winding down to a quiet finish.

It would have been perfect. Not too long ago, the boy from the Paris suburb of Rueil Malmison, nearly 13km from city centre in Paris was sorting garbage in a suburb. “Five years ago, I wasn’t even professional,” Kante had said after winning the English football writers’ association award in 2017.

And then Deschamps got him back. Like Murat Yakin and his punt of using Kwadwo Duah and Xherdan Shaqiri, Deschamps’ backing Kante has worked. Like a charm.

Kante hadn’t played for France for two years and the intensity of Saudi Pro League would be significantly less than Euro 2024, it was pointed out. But like Roberto Martinez and Cristiano Ronaldo, Deschamps stayed firm.

Initially, Kante wasn’t sure. "It's important (to make a good impression), especially when you come back to the national team," he said. Mbappe too wasn’t convinced. A couple of sessions in and the France captain needed no more convincing. “He has a thousand lungs,” Mbappe told “Ouest-France”. Feels like you are against three players, said Marcus Thurram. When Mbappe had his nose bloodied, he gave the armband to Kante.

Players around Kante have changed. Gone was Paul Pogba with whom he ruled the midfield with in Russia. In came Aurélien Tchouaméni on Friday and Adrien Rabiot in the first game but if anything, Kante has slotted into his role without missing a beat. He averaged 10.4km in Russia in the group stage and has gone over 11km in Euro 2024. And he worked up speed of 34.5km against Austria. Only Mbappe was faster.

“Perfect example of an all-round midfielder,” said Wayne Rooney. “He defends really well but makes forward runs too.” At Leicester City, it used to be said the 70% of the planet has water, the rest is covered by Kante.

At 33, Kante is not slowing down. Because France need him to run.

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