Kante the 'battery' of Chelsea bid for title
'This type of player who puts team before himself, I like a lot' - Conte
The last time Chelsea went to Leicester City in the Premier League, it was the last game of the second Jose Mourinho era and the team that was collapsing in on itself was torn apart by Claudio Ranieri's history-makers.
Leicester had plenty of brilliant players that night but none was better than N'Golo Kante, their little French midfielder who was still going under most people's radars, yet to explode into public consciousness.
But he ran Chelsea ragged, dominating the midfield, doing the work of two men alongside Danny Drinkwater and then Andy King in the middle. It was a super-human performance in a season full of them.
Leicester, of course, went on to win the Premier League and Kante could legitimately claim to be as important to that win as either Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez.
Without his energy they could never have afforded to play that 4-4-2 with as much midfield control as they did.
Drinkwater looks half the player this season without Kante alongside him to do so much running.
Just over one year on, Kante returns to Leicester tonight at the top of the league again, this time with Chelsea, with the positions of the two clubs having been inverted .
At this stage last season, Leicester had 43 points compared to Chelsea's 24 while the two clubs will meet this evening with Antonio Conte glancing at the champions in his rear-view mirror, 28 points ahead.
Kante's £30m switch to Stamford Bridge last summer is not the only explanation for that, but it is certainly an important part of both stories.
And, having won the title last season, Kante is determined to do the same again at Chelsea this term.
Seven other players have won the Premier League title with more than one club, but Kante would be the first outfield player to do so with different clubs in consecutive seasons - his former Leicester team-mate Mark Schwarzer being the only other man to do so in the Premier League era.
"Last season at Leicester was a beautiful season, I felt very good," Kante said as he looked forward to this evening's match.
"Today at Chelsea I feel very good as well. The team is playing very well and we had a beautiful run with the 13 consecutive victories. I am very happy here, and I hope we can be champions."
Kante clearly enjoys playing for Conte as much as he did for his compatriot Ranieri last season.
"Conte is a great coach and he knows what he wants from the players," Kante said. "I am enjoying it here at Chelsea with him."
Everyone knows how the change from 4-1-4-1 to 3-4-3 transformed Chelsea's season, setting them on the record-equalling winning run that has them in the driving seat to take them to this season's title.
But the importance of Kante to the change is often misunderstood. It is players who win games, after all, and not systems.
What the change did is go from playing a midfield three to a midfield two, freeing up Kante to make the most of his running, his most important attribute.
Kante has wrongly pigeon-holed in the past as the new Claude Makelele but he is much more than a sitting midfielder.
Playing in a pair again, with Nemanja Matic his new Drinkwater, he can cover so much ground that Chelsea do not lose out because of their lack of numbers.
That has been the secret to their recent success, the reason why they can make the 3-4-3 work.
Back in October, when Conte had first switched to the new system, he explained why Kante's running was the crucial part to that type of football.
"N'Golo has fantastic stamina and covers a lot of ground," Conte explained.
"This is very important for the balance when you play offensive football, to have a player who recovers the ball back very well. He is a fantastic player who can play in a three or a two in midfield."
Conte football is about hard work, energy and carrying out instructions. And, even if Chelsea win the title this season, he is sure to push for more Kantes this summer.
"This type of player, who puts the team before himself, I like a lot," Conte added. "I want this type of player."
Claudio Ranieri insists Kante should be welcomed back to the King Power Stadium, but there was clear regret in the Leicester manager when he reflected on Kante's departure.
"I'm not surprised at how well he's done at Chelsea, but he could play better with us. Here he was better suited. He was our battery," he said. "With N'Golo we played with 12 players and fortunately the referee never counted how many we had on the field.
"All the spotlight was on him here whereas at Chelsea there are so many champions. I hope our fans give him a warm reception because he was our champion. It's important to remember what he gave us."
Meanwhile, it has emerged that Chelsea paid Jose Mourinho and his coaching staff more than £30m in compensation for twice sacking the 'Special One'.
Mourinho and his backroom team were paid £8.3m after being dismissed in December 2015, having already pocketed £23.1m for first being sacked in 2007.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich clearly learnt his lesson from the first payout, however.
It appears that Mourinho, and assistants Rui Faria, Silvino Louro, Jose Morais and Carlos Lalin, were paid only for the remainder of the 2015/'16 season the second time around after the Portuguese had pocketed the full value of his remaining contract eight years earlier.
According to a document made available by Companies House, Chelsea refer to "termination payments and compensation totalling £8.3m in relation to the changes in the first-team management during the year".
The figures, which were released yesterday, also show that the Blues paid £67m to trigger the early termination of their kit deal with adidas, which freed them to sign a new £60m-a-year contract with Nike that runs over the next 15 years.
Chelsea's agreement with adidas had been worth £30m a year, which shows that it was well within the club's interest to pay the early termination fee to clinch the Nike deal.
Independent News Service