France’s un­sung hero gets team­mates’ praises

New Straits Times - - SPORT -

IT is easy to ig­nore diminu­tive N’Golo Kante amid all of France’s star-stud­ded World Cup squad that in­cludes US$100 mil­lion (RM404 mil­lion)plus play­ers such as Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and An­toine Griez­mann.

But when the French take on Croa­tia to­mor­row in the World Cup fi­nal, Kante will have contributed as much to that suc­cess if not more than the big name team­mates, as every one of France’s op­po­nents in Rus­sia can tes­tify.

The 27-year-old does not have the stature of fel­low mid­fielder Pogba, nor does he have the light­ning speed of Mbappe or the goal-scor­ing abil­ity of Griez­mann.

He has, how­ever, “15 lungs”, ac­cord­ing to Pogba, an in­com­pa­ra­ble work ethic and a unique abil­ity to read the game like few oth­ers, a fact that makes him a one-man wall as beaten semi-fi­nal­ists Bel­gium can at­test af­ter he helped neu­tralise their famed at­tack­ing threat.

Play­ing in front of de­fend­ers, for much of his ca­reer Kante’s abil­i­ties had gone un­no­ticed given that as re­cently as 2013 he was play­ing in France’s sec­ond di­vi­sion.

Only when he came to Leicester City in 2015 did the world start to take no­tice of the player who pa­trols the area in front of his de­fence in such a way that al­lows both mid­field­ers and de­fend­ers to play up.

Leicester’s shock­ing run to the Pre­mier League ti­tle in 2016 was as much down to Kante’s in­ter­cep­tions and tack­les as it was to James Vardy’s goals.

At the end of that sea­son he had more tack­les and in­ter­cep­tions than any other Pre­mier League player.

But the 1.68m-tall French­man was just warm­ing up. His move to Chelsea may have sur­prised some at the time but by the end of the 2016/17 sea­son there was no doubt who one of the best de­fen­sive mid­field­ers in the world was.

“NG is al­ways very re­served, very calm and very timid,” Pogba said on Thurs­day. “Ex­cept when he is play­ing cards.”

“We un­der­stand each other very well, we talk, we give each other ad­vice. It is a very spe­cial re­la­tion­ship. He is just a great guy.”

France could win their sec­ond World Cup ti­tle on Sun­day and while ev­ery­one could be hail­ing their big-name play­ers, Pogba, Griez­mann and Mbappe know well any ti­tle would not have been pos­si­ble with­out Kante’s tire­less work in mid­field.

France’s N’Golo Kante started to gain the world’s at­ten­tion when he played for Leicester in 2015.

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