Kanté now a top player – Conte

Man­ager praises ever-im­prov­ing French­man af­ter win over Leicester

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer - Paul Doyle at the King Power Sta­dium

Mid­way through the first half Wil­fred Ndidi launched a counter-at­tack. Af­ter win­ning pos­ses­sion deep in his own half he scooted for­ward.

When con­fronted by N’Golo Kanté, he knocked the ball past the French­man and dashed to re­trieve it on the other side – nice try but no one does that to Kanté.

The Chelsea player beat Ndidi to the ball and held him off be­fore pass­ing to a team-mate. The young Nige­rian was bought by Leicester af­ter Kanté went to Chelsea a year ago, has done a de­cent job of re­plac­ing him and is get­ting bet­ter all the time. But Kanté is still ahead of the 20-year-old. And he, too, is im­prov­ing.

The most ob­vi­ous demon­stra­tion of Kanté’s pro­gres­sion came five min­utes into the sec­ond half when he struck what turned out to be the win­ning goal, re­ceiv­ing the ball 30 yards out and lash­ing a low shot into the bot­tom cor­ner.

Fe­ro­cious shot

It was not the most fe­ro­cious shot ever seen – Ndidi, in fact, tends to be more dan­ger­ous from long range – and Craig Shake­speare in­ti­mated af­ter­wards that Leicester’s play­ers were slow to close down Kanté be­cause they did not ex­pect their for­mer team-mate to open fire.

The fact that Kanté did so re­flected his in­creased con­fi­dence in pos­ses­sion and the en­cour­age­ment he has been given.

“He played a fan­tas­tic game. He scored but over­all he made a lot of good runs,” said An­to­nio Conte. “Be­fore, a lot of peo­ple told me, ‘Yes, with­out the ball he has good stamina and is a good worker,’ but now with the ball he has im­proved a lot. I am happy for this be­cause we are work­ing a lot with him. Now I think he is a top player.”

Kanté, of course, was voted the Pre­mier League’s player of last sea­son. The two pre­vi­ous re­cip­i­ents of that award – Eden Hazard and Riyad Mahrez – lost form in the sea­son af­ter their ac­co­lades but Kanté looks un­likely to make that mistake. “This sea­son he is con­firm­ing,” the Chelsea man­ager added.

Dan­ger­ous bursts

With Kanté con­tribut­ing even more to at­tack, Chelsea’s deep­est mid­fielder tends to be his re­cently ar­rived com­pa­triot, Tié­moué Bakayoko.

The £39.7 mil­lion (¤43.5 mil­lion) sum­mer re­cruit from Monaco oc­ca­sion­ally makes dan­ger­ous bursts for­ward but is con­fined mostly to pa­trol duty. The re­stric­tion is tem­po­rary.

“Don’t for­get he is only 23 years old,” says Conte. “He is also trying to adapt to our idea of foot­ball. He has great qual­ity. He is very strong with­out the ball and now I think he can im­prove a lot with the ball in the same way that N’Golo has done.”

With Bakayoko im­press­ing, Ál­varo Mo­rata scor­ing freely, An­to­nio Rüdi­ger look­ing com­fort­able at the back and Da­vide Zap­pa­costa per­form­ing well af­ter be­ing sprung from the bench where he had been sit­ting with Danny Drinkwa­ter, Chelsea can be sat­is­fied with how their sum­mer sign­ings have looked.

But the test is about to get tougher as they be­gin their Cham­pi­ons League cam­paign on Tues­day when Qarabag, the Azer­bai­jan cham­pi­ons, visit Stam­ford Bridge.

“Last year we had long weeks to get ready for our Pre­mier League games at the week­end; this sea­son will be dif­fer­ent,” says Hazard.

“But as a player you want to be in the Cham­pi­ons League. I just reached the semi-fi­nal with Chelsea, when we lost to Atlético Madrid, so it’s in my head to win this tro­phy.

“I have won the Pre­mier League, I have won the ti­tle in France, I have won cups but big play­ers al­ways want to win the Cham­pi­ons League. I think now it is time to win this. We have a good squad, we have a good man­ager, so we are ready for it.”

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