Stade Michel d’Ornano in Caen is a long way from Porto’s Estadio do Dragao. To be precise, it’s 1,573 kilometers in the unlikely event you ever have the urge to drive across Portugal and Spain, then all the way up to Normandy in northern France.
In terms of staging posts within a career, second tier French football in 2013-14 and the 2021 Champions League final are a million miles apart. But this is the journey Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante have taken, almost stride for stride, as they wait to contest the European club game’s greatest prize.
A look at Ligue 2’s YouTube highlights from the first time the Manchester City winger and Chelsea midfielder faced one another on September 27, 2013, when Caen hosted Le Havre, reveals a few very familiar traits.
Kante can be seen bustling around with intent from the right of Caen’s midfield three, although three-minute condensed match clips are obviously not the best medium for showcasing his qualities.
Mahrez created Le Havre’s best first-half chance with a cute throughball, almost snuck in a cheeky free-kick at the near post and then did that first touch. You know the one – kills a cross-field ball stone dead with the outside of his left boot, twists the defender inside out and gets a shot off.
That attempt was saved, however, and a Faycal Fajr penalty after Le Havre’s Zargo Toure was sent off gave Caen a 1-0 win. They would go on to secure promotion, beginning a remarkable mid-decade run of success for Kante, irrespective of which team he happened to be representing.
But Mahrez was the first to escape Ligue 2, joining Leicester City midway through the campaign and similarly earning promotion from the Championship.
After an improbable escape from relegation in 2014-15, Leicester parted company with manager Nigel Pearson and appointed Claudio Ranieri. Kante was one of his close-season signings, with Caen pocketing £5.6m, and the rest is gloriously improbable history.
That was a hefty outlay compared to the £400,000 Leicester sent Le Havre’s way for Mahrez, who finished the Foxes’ Premier League-winning campaign in 2015-16 with 17 goals, 11 assists and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award.
While the Algeria winger won the approval of his fellow professionals and Jamie Vardy’s astonishing rise from non-league to the top of the English game earned him the FWA Footballer of the Year prize, the biggest revelation was arguably Kante.
“This player Kante, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack of batteries hidden in his shorts,” Ranieri told the Players’ Tribune.
“I tell him, ‘One day, I’m going to see you cross the ball and then finish the cross with a header yourself!’.”
A run to the final of Euro 2016 followed with France, and Kante was the one jewel of the Leicester triumph to depart in its immediate afterglow. He joined Chelsea for £32m, helped to drive Antonio Conte’s men to the Premier League title and cleaned up at the end of season awards.
Twelve months later, he was a world champion as France romped to glory at Russia 2018. Kante was football’s sure thing, at club or international level. And yet, in hindsight, the full palate of his qualities were perhaps a touch under-appreciated.
All eulogies came back to that insatiable work-rate, that battery pack in the shorts. Maurizio Sarri’s installation as Antonio Conte’s successor at Stamford Bridge, bringing with him his cerebral deep-lying playmaker Jorginho, would mean a change of pace.
In his two seasons under Conte, Kante made 127 and 113 tackles. This was down from terrifyingly relentless 175 (winning 71.4 per cent – his best success rate in the Premier League) in that season at Leicester, which does much to explain how his reputation was established and remained in the popular imagination.
In 2018-19, his tackles number fell to 74 and it has never returned to previous levels under Frank Lampard or Thomas Tuchel. But as a shuttling midfield presence under Sarri, his 73 touches in the opposition box that season were more than in his entire Premier League career up until that point, with four goals and four assists his reward.
Where some feared Jorginho’s arrival would shove Kante out of his preferred position, they now operate very effectively in tandem and will probably do so against City. For all that the former Napoli man is charged with setting the tempo, Kante remains tidily efficient in possession. His pass completion in every season at the Bridge tracks between 85 and 89 per cent.
The 30-year-old stamped his presence all over the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid and was named man of the match for both legs in a 3-1 aggregate triumph. During the second encounter in London, Kante made five interceptions – only bettered by six from Jorginho – but also made more passes in the opposition half (25) and created more chances (three) than any other Chelsea player.
This week in Porto, UEFA is displaying the Champions League trophy in a public square opposite Jardim de Joao Chagas. The shimmering prize is flanked by a City shirt bearing Kevin De Bruyne’s name and number. The Chelsea jersey has Kante on the back. He is unquestionably one of the main attractions and keys to victory this weekend.
The same can be said for Mahrez, although his adjustment to life in Manchester was not as seamless as Kante’s in England’s capital.
As his old team-mate adapted to Sarri, Mahrez struggled to take on board Guardiola’s demands having got the £60m move he had long craved. However, his 2019-20 returns showed improvements, with 11 Premier League goals and nine assists – up from seven and four a year earlier. Waiting patiently on the right-wing for his team-mates to disrupt opponents and leave him with one-on-one duels was different to the freedom he enjoyed at Leicester but starting to pay dividends.
He is now one of Guardiola’s go-to men, came second behind Ruben Dias in City’s player of the year poll and is a scorer of heavy goals.
When the Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund was on the line, 2-2 on aggregate with his team heading out on away goals at Signal Iduna Park, Mahrez slammed home a high-pressure penalty after an interminable VAR delay. He went on to score a goal in each leg as Paris Saint-Germain were swept aside 4-1 on aggregate, including the winner through a disintegrating defensive wall at the Parc des Princes.
“Riyad always was at a good level,” Guardiola said earlier this month. “Maybe at the beginning he didn’t play much in the first season because we already had a structure with Leroy [Sane] and the other ones, but step by step he regained his position.
“Lately he has been playing really good and hopefully he can maintain this level.”
At the other end of the square where Kante’s shirt stands alongside the trophy he hopes to lift this weekend, UEFA have installed a merchandise stall where a shirt to commemorate the all-English final will set you back €60.
That amounts to fleecing that could not be further away from the value for money Leicester enjoyed when they plucked Mahrez and Kante from France and set them on the path to Porto.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!