Just 19 months ago, a fit and firing N’Golo Kante pulled out one of his finest ever Chelsea displays on the grandest of stages, covering every blade of grass to inspire a dominant 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid in the Champions League last-16.
‘If you play with him, you play with half a man more because he gives intensity and volume that is outstanding and unique,’ Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea head coach, said at the time.
‘It is a pleasure to coach him and a big gift for me.’
Kante’s mighty showing that night was his first of many in a historic Champions League campaign which ended with Chelsea, revitalised by Tuchel’s arrival at the end of January, sealing a remarkable upturn in fortunes by going all the way and lifting the big-eared trophy.
No player was more important for Chelsea in their 2020-21 Champions League winning campaign than N’Golo Kante
Kante produced a series of spellbinding displays to earn the Blues a second European crown
But 17 months on from that triumph, the Frenchman faces a struggle to earn a new contract
No player was more important during that run than the pint-sized Frenchman, who turned in barnstormer after barnstormer to help see off Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City on their way to glory.
And in the 1-0 triumph against City which crowned them European champions, he was quite simply the best on the park.
So after a Champions League final performance for the ages, who in their right mind would have foreseen that, only 508 days later, Kante would be facing an uphill battle to earn a new contract at Stamford Bridge?
That is the precarious position he now finds himself in because of injury, which prevented him from hitting full stride last season and will now keep him out of action until February at the earliest.
The latest setback, a hamstring problem which required surgery this month, is a gut-wrenching one for both Chelsea and France.
While he has got off to a flyer without him, Graham Potter will miss Kante’s unparalleled engine and reading of the game deeply this season, particularly when up against a Big Six rival.
Les Bleus, meanwhile, have lost an irreplaceable member of their squad ahead of next month’s World Cup.
Kante’s latest injury, a hamstring problem which needed surgery, has derailed his season
It means he will not feature for Didier Deschamps’ France side at the World Cup this year
Chelsea also have a big decision to make with Kante’s contract set to expire next summer
And for the player himself a lengthy spell on the sidelines has come at the worst time imaginable. At 31 years of age and with his fitness deteriorating, he is now unlikely to ever play at the World Cup again, with the next tournament coming after his 35th birthday in 2026, while Euro 2024 could also be a push.
He is also set to enter the final eight months of his current £290,000-a-week deal at Chelsea, who must weigh up whether it’s worth keeping him on their books beyond the summer.
When fully fit there is no better box-to-box midfielder on the planet than Kante. No player in world football covers ground as intelligently and efficiently as the man from Paris – and none combine such relentless work off the ball with equally-important quality on it.
Yet unfortunately, the first three words of the previous paragraph have become a rarity in recent times.
After winning the Champions League in 2021, Kante missed 16 matches the following season with a frustrating series of knocks and niggles, meaning he never managed to reach top form as Tuchel’s Chelsea fell by the wayside in the Premier League title race and failed to retain their European crown.
When fully fit there is no better box-to-box midfielder in world football than Kante
This term he had only racked up 175 minutes of action before the dreaded hamstring problem first arose against Tottenham at the end of August. It means by the time he returns next year, Kante would have played just under three hours of football over the past seven months.
Now in the twilight of his career, it will be a struggle for the Chelsea hero to ever return to the lofty heights of his 2021 Champions League winning form, which makes it hard to justify renewing his £15million-a-year wages.
Kante would likely demand a multi-year extension to stay put in west London, but what if he never gets back to his best after signing it? And more concerningly, what if another big injury comes around next year?
It may just prove too much of a risk for Chelsea, especially given the young talent on their radar who could replace him at the end of the season.
West Ham’s Declan Rice, released by the Blues as a kid, has been linked with a move to his boyhood club for years now and reportedly remains a target despite the recent change of ownership.
At 23, Rice is already one of the strongest midfielders in the Premier League and his best years are still ahead of him. He has made at least 30 appearances in the last five seasons, too, making him a more reliable option than Kante fitness-wise.
Another young English star interesting Chelsea is Jude Bellingham, who has emerged as one of the hottest properties in world football at Borussia Dortmund.
The 19-year-old is showing both quality and maturity well beyond his years in Germany, meaning he is attracting attention from a host of top European clubs – including Todd Boehly’s Blues.
Boehly is understood to be a huge admirer of Bellingham, meaning he may put huge money down to win what promises to be a hotly-contested race for his signature.
Both players would command eye-watering transfer fees. Rice is under contract until 2024 at West Ham, who have the option to extend those terms by a further year, while Bellingham has just under three years to run on his Dortmund deal.
It could be the perfect time for Chelsea to try and replace Kante with West Ham’s Declan Rice
Borussia Dortmund wonderkid Jude Bellingham is another young star on the Blues’ radar
There is certainly no guarantee that Chelsea will land either, though moving Kante on next summer would free up space on the wage bill for one of the aforementioned pair to arrive.
And Boehly does not exactly appear an owner fazed by the unthinkable, so tabling a nine-figure bid is not out of the question for the American tycoon.
Of course, if other fringe members of Potter’s squad are offloaded they could always do both. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a straight choice between keeping Kante or splashing the cash on a wonderkid.
But when assessing his recent injury record along, miles on the clock and age, at this stage handing Kante a lucrative new contract would be a huge roll of the dice.
With that being said, it could be a gamble worth taking.
A potential return in February would give him almost three months to regain match fitness and convince Blues chiefs that he is worth keeping around for a little while longer.
But Chelsea risk losing Kante for free and letting a rival enjoy him at the peak of his powers
His form in that short window before the end of the campaign will likely be crucial in Chelsea’s decision making.
If he shows glimpses of the old Kante, the prospect of Real Madrid, Barcelona or, worse, a Premier League rival taking him on a free transfer and reaping the rewards he brings at optimum fitness could prove too daunting.
If he can get back to the peak of his powers, Arsene Wenger’s verdict after the 2021 Champions League final speaks volumes about the talent Chelsea will have in their ranks again.
‘We have seen a man who is above everybody else, N’Golo Kante.’