Kai Havertz takes the glory and Timo Werner did everything but score, running Manchester City ragged for over an hour, rewriting the narrative surrounding Chelsea’s spending spree of last year.
But perhaps the smartest move by those pulling the strings at Chelsea has been to keep N’Golo Kante, a colossus of this Champions League final; crowding, cramping City’s style, always lurking and looking, Kante was absolutely pivotal to the dark blues bossing this match.
The talk was, going back 12 months, that Chelsea were thinking about selling Kante.
Billy Gilmour was emerging, Mason Mount was everything Frank Lampard has ever looked for in a midfielder, and with a big-money Havertz deal in the pipeline it seemed the face of Chelsea’s midfield would be a young one.
Kante had endured injuries, and then he was reluctant to immediately return to training when the Premier League’s lockdown ended in June, seeking clear assurances of coronavirus safety where others were perhaps in a hurry to get back to Cobham.
Was he as committed as others? Was his injury track record a worry? Lampard – remember him? – memorably killed the Kante exit talk at a stroke last June when he labelled the Frenchman “one of the best midfield players in the world”.
“I actually would have loved to play with him, the type of player he is,” Lampard said in a news conference. “He has everything, and coming back to Chelsea and managing this club, having N’Golo Kante, is something I really wanted to appreciate and work with.”
Lampard presumably watched this final, regardless of his sacking by Chelsea in January, and how he must have again admired the Parisian’s all-action efforts.
At full-time, former England and Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand declared on BT Sport: “Kante put on a masterclass in how to retrieve the ball, to defend, to then break things up and be a menace in that midfield. He controlled the game.”
Joe Cole, the former Chelsea playmaker, went one step further, saying: “I don’t think there’s a more important player for his team in world football than Kante. We’ve watched a showpiece game and with him it looked like man against boys. He drove that Chelsea team.”
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) May 29, 2021
Before this game, Kante had started seven games and came off the bench six more times in the Champions League this season.
Heading into the final, there had been just six midfielders in this season’s competition with a passing accuracy above 85 per cent (Kante: 86.39), an accuracy into the final third of above 80 per cent (82.14), more than 40 ball recoveries (63), over 500 touches (511) and 25 possession wins in the midfield third of the pitch (42).
The others have been Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Toni Kroos – hopes of silverware for Los Blancos ended with the semi-final defeat to Chelsea – plus Atletico Madrid’s Koke and the City pair of Rodri and Fernandinho.
That’s the City pair who started this final on the substitutes’ bench, both having been almost ever-present throughout the European campaign, victims of Pep Guardiola’s latest big-match team selection twaddle.
By half-time, Chelsea were in front and Kante was in charge.
Former City midfield hardman Nigel de Jong tweeted: “Not the first half you want to see as a city fan… Kante is running the show at the moment stretching that midfield out. Restore a holding midfielder is key here.”
De Jong had nailed it. Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea boss, must have been relieved the Dutchman sent the message on social media rather than as a text to the City dugout.
Ben Chilwell had made an early dash down the left and Kante burst forward, the furthest Chelsea man upfield. Although the move came to nothing, it was a sign he would not simply sit deep.
Moments later, Kante was helping out right-back Reece James against Phil Foden. In the 12th minute it was Kante bursting on to a pass on the edge of the City penalty area, albeit without having the sass to outwit Ruben Dias.
When City broke at pace after Werner twice went close, it was Kante on the edge of the 18-yard box there to make the crucial interception, and a minute later the five foot, seven inch Frenchman was winning the ball in the air at the other end of the pitch but heading just off target from left-back Chilwell’s cross.
Proving a terrific nuisance, a hawk constantly surveying the field for his next prey, Kante pinched the ball from Kevin de Bruyne and raced from his own half deep into City territory, feeding Havertz who might have done better but had the ball whipped away from his left foot as he prepared to unload a shot.
Havertz, suddenly with a taste for goal, did better just before the break after Mount’s delicious throughball, the young Englishman stepping into an area of the pitch where on another day he might have encountered Fernandinho or Rodri.
Kante teed up Werner for a half-chance before the whistle came for the interval, a cute chip into the penalty area from the right wing showing another unsung aspect of his repertoire.
It continued into the second half, Kante sliding in to take the ball off De Bruyne with a clean tackle as the Belgian darted towards the edge of the Chelsea box.
When De Bruyne went off, dazed by Antonio Rudiger’s bodycheck, he might well have been seeing double. But he had endured an hour of that with Kante anyway, or at least it must have felt that way, more often than not finding the Frenchman on his heels.
And so Chelsea’s other players raised their game to match Kante, and now they are European champions again. He won 11 of 15 duels, recovered the ball 10 times for his team, and the shortest man on the pitch won four out of seven aerial duels – nobody on his team won more.
In every way possible, he rose to the challenge.
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