One of football fans’ main fears is that a key man will go away on international duty, only to come back injured. Sadio Mane returned to Liverpool with a hamstring issue sustained while in action with Senegal, while Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger this morning confirmed that Shkodran Mustafi is sidelined for six weeks with a thigh issue picked up with the Germany national team. The duo are joined by Chelsea lynchpin N’Golo Kante, with it rumoured the Frenchman will miss the Blues’ next six games with the issue, starting with Saturday’s visit to Crystal Palace.
While the trip to Selhurst Park is hardly the most difficult to navigate considering the Eagles’ start to the season – Palace have lost their opening seven league games and are the only side in the top four tiers of English football yet to score this term – Kante’s absence makes Chelsea’s trip to south London that bit harder. Following his move to Leicester in 2015, the 26-year-old has wowed supporters with his all-action displays in the middle of the park and unparalleled work ethic to deny opponents.
With two Premier League winners’ medals in two full seasons, Kante’s looming spell on the sidelines significantly dents his chances of making it three from three and hinders Chelsea’s pursuit of defending their top-flight crown. A 1-0 loss to title favourites Manchester City at Stamford Bridge prior to the international break leaves Chelsea six points behind City and their rivals Manchester United at the Premier League’s summit.
On the continent, too, Kante’s injury comes as a blow to Chelsea, with the France international expected to sit out the two Champions League meetings with Roma. Given his tenacity and ball retaining quality, the Blues are widely expected to struggle in the wake of the problem sustained. Indeed, no player has won possession in the midfield third more times than Kante (35) in the Premier League this season, with the former Leicester man ranking second for tackles and interceptions combined (43) in England’s top tier this term.
Recently, Antonio Conte has tasked Kante with pushing the team forward down Chelsea’s right, as he did so against Atletico Madrid and Manchester City, so not only will Chelsea be robbed of his off the ball influence, but a key man to help punch a hole in opposition defences. The partnership he has quickly forged with summer arrival Tiemoue Bakayoko has also been crucial in Chelsea’s good start to the season, with the former Monaco man robbed of his midfield partner.
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The duo shield Chelsea’s defence effectively and allows for the wing-back pair to break forward on a whim, safe in the knowledge that one of Kante or Bakayoko is covering the space they vacate when they look to stretch opponents. While Cesc Fabregas provides sufficient cover, particularly against teams that hope to sit back and defend and hit Chelsea on the counter, the Spaniard is an alternative to Kante rather than a like for like replacement.
Both are intelligent players in their own right, but when fit, Kante is perhaps the first name on the Chelsea team sheet and rightly so. The hope now is to have him fit and available for the welcome of Manchester United next month, but that’s a double-edged sword on its own. If he proves his fitness by then, it’s likely that Didier Deschamps would look to select Kante for his France squad for the following international break, which again represents a risk that he would again sustain another injury. That alone would be a blow with the hectic festive period edging ever closer.
Fortunately for Conte, he has strength in depth in the middle of the park following Danny Drinkwater’s deadline day capture, though the England international is yet to feature for his new side on the back of his switch to Stamford Bridge. With Chelsea needing to keep the pace with the two Manchester clubs, considering their seemingly unstoppable form, their task of defending the Premier League title has become that bit harder.
Not only that, but their chances of making headway in the Champions League lessens considerably in Kante’s absence. The hope now is that Chelsea’s midfield star can return earlier than reported, but the Blues must now face the prospect of facing the remainder of October without their star man and prepare accordingly.