Real Madrid’s midfield is the envy of most sides in Europe. Even the very best would love to have Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro in their ranks.
Yet last week against Chelsea that trio was overshadowed by one man: N’Golo Kante.
The 30-year-old was at his best against Los Blancos in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Christian Pulisic was on target for the Blues and Karim Benzema struck for the home side.
Kante’s ability to read the game coupled with his energy and mobility caused the trio of Kroos, Modric and Casemiro problems.
“There was a lot of praise for Kante,” AFP’s Spanish football reporter Tom Allnutt tells football.london. “The idea of dynamism in the midfield is a very live point at the moment in Spain.
“Obviously in Modric, Kroos and Casemiro, Real Madrid have a legacy three and they won so much together. But at some point, they are going to have to stop.
“And Barcelona, their midfield has been an issue for three or four years. The question continue to be asked as to whether Sergio Busquests is mobile enough defensively to stop counter-attacks, especially in big European games?
“So there is somewhat of a longing for a player like N’Golo Kante because he is a midfielder that can be everywhere and perform multiple roles in one game.”
Tomorrow’s game at Stamford Bridge is Chelsea’s biggest for many a season. Ninety minutes is all that separates the Blues from a third Champions League final in 13 years.
Pulisic’s away goal ensures Thomas Tuchel’s side have the slightest of advantages going into the second leg. But as Allnutt explains, that will not faze Real Madrid.
He said: “Chelsea were effectively the better team in the first leg and when they played at their highest level, I didn’t feel that Real Madrid could keep up. And there’s no reason to suggest Chelsea can’t find that level again at home either.
“Obviously with the away goal, they’re in a good position within the tie. But on the flip side – with my Spanish football hat on – there was a feeling here that Real Madrid had survived when they had to.
“Across 180 minutes of football, every side is going to have ups and downs. What Real have perfected in the Champions League in recent years is being able to come through the storm and then when the wind is behind them, to take full advantage.”
There will be returns to Stamford Bridge for two former Chelsea stars. Thibaut Courtois left the Blues under a cloud in the summer of 2018 having forced through a move to the Bernabeu. The following year, Eden Hazard departed for a fee of around £130million.
Hazard has struggled since leaving west London. Injuries have restricted him to less than 40 appearances since signing for Real in the summer of 2019 and he hasn’t yet produced his best for the Spanish giants.
The 30-year-old returned from a muscle injury just days before the first leg. But he started in the 2-0 win over Osasuna at the weekend and is expected to be included in the Real Madrid side by Zinedine Zidane on his return to Chelsea.
And Allnutt says Hazard will likely be a far bigger threat in the second leg than he was in the first.
He explained: “He played 70 minutes at the weekend and was very lively.
“His final details weren’t the best and looked like a player that was still searching a bit for his best form. But he was involved a lot in what Real Madrid were doing, which hasn’t always been the case.
“He’s sometimes been a bit of a passenger but he looked eager at the weekend, a player keen to make an impression. And given he started and played 70 minutes, I think it’s more likely he’ll start on Wednesday.
“With those extra minutes under his belt, it’s suddenly more likely he can have an impact in the game.”