March 7, 2017 / 2:59 AM / 5 months ago

Chelsea's unsung hero Kante at heart of title drive

Britain Football Soccer - London Football Awards 2017 - Battersea Evolution - 2/3/17 N'Golo Kante before the London Football Awards 2017 Mandatory Credit: Action Images / John Sibley Livepic

LONDON (Reuters) - Chelsea's N'Golo Kante has scored just once this season and his name rarely hits the headlines but without the indefatigable midfielder it is unlikely they would be so dominant in the Premier League this season.

In his first campaign in England, Kante helped steer Leicester City to one of the most improbable title triumphs in the history of European soccer in 2016.

After signing for Chelsea in the close season, he is on course do it again and win a second champions' medal in May.

It was a typically low-key intervention by the Frenchman that got Chelsea on their way to a 2-1 win at West Ham United on Monday, a victory that leaves Chelsea 10 points clear of their nearest rivals Tottenham Hotspur at the top of the table.

Nearly half an hour into the London derby, Kante reacted with typical quickness to intercept a ball deep in his own half and push it into the path of Eden Hazard.

A few seconds later, after an exchange of passes with Pedro, Hazard was rounding keeper Darren Randolph to put Chelsea ahead.

Soon afterwards, Kante drew an audible gasp from the West Ham fans when the ball seemed to be rolling out for goal kick only for the Frenchman to speed past ball-watching defenders, deftly control the ball on the line and flick it back into the box to create another chance for the visitors.

The statistics show that Kante wins two of every three tackles he attempts. What they do not show is his ability to second-guess his opponents, claim the ball with ease and set his Chelsea team mates up with simple and accurate passing.

Born in Paris, Kante played for amateur side Suresnes until he was 19 when he moved north to join Boulogne. He was spotted by second-tier Caen, moved to the Normandy club and helped them earn promotion to Ligue 1 in his first season.

Many commentators attribute the struggles of Leicester this season, as the English champions battle to avoid relegation, to the loss of the diminutive midfielder.

Chelsea coach Antonio Conte joked with reporters that he was finding it hard to find any areas for improvement in Kante.

"He made 50 passes and he made five mistakes. He has to improve in this," Conte told reporters. "I am joking. I have to find one situation to tell him to improve. But... he is a really good player and he has great stamina.

It is not just at Stamford Bridge that admiration for Kante is so high. "If you were to buy any player in the Premier League at the moment, I think it would be N'Golo Kante," former Manchester United defender Phil Neville said on BBC radio.

Editing by Ken Ferris

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