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WORLD CUP 2018: Why Croatia will be losing sleep over France star Kante

COMMENT: Just four years ago N'Golo Kante was a complete unknown, a £5.6 million Leicester City signing bought from French side Caen after just one season of top-flight football.

That France's extraordinary central midfielder – undoubtedly the world's best in his position and, should he lift the World Cup on Sunday, arguably on a path to becoming one of the greatest of all time – went under the radar for so long seems extraordinary with hindsight.

But battling all-action midfielders, defined by intelligence and subtlety in unfashionable areas of the pitch, have never been given enough attention – until Kante came along. He is not just a uniquely talented footballer. He is the man who changed perceptions, who made the art of the defensive midfielder fashionable and awoke England, then Europe, and now the world to the beauty and genius of the dirty work.

Three years ago the idea of Kante, the best player in Leicester City's title-winning campaign, being awarded PFA Player of the Year award was preposterous; only forwards and glamour players take individual gongs. But Kante dragged English football forward, forced pundits to take greater care with their tactical analysis, and 12 months later he was honoured with a litany of individual awards – including PFA Player of the Year. That was a huge symbolic moment in England.

History will remember Kante not just for his astonishing footballing ability, but for the way he reshaped our collective appreciation of defending, for the way he widening the parameters of what can be seen as beautiful in football. One year on from his unprecedented PFA award Kante is on the verge of winning the Golden Ball: becoming the first non-forward to do so since Uruguay's Jose Nasazzi in 1930.

Watching Kante flit around a football pitch is a genuinely hypnotic experience. He manipulates worm holes, presumably, to get around the field, appearing in the perfect defensive position with impossible regularity. The standard joke is to point out there are two or three Kantes on the pitch at any given time, tackling, intercepting, shimmying, and passing with ludicrous dexterity. He is telepathic in his reading of the game; teleportative in his movement.

Croatia will be terrified. Even Luka Modric will struggle to sleep on Saturday night as the thought of Kante lurks in his subconscious. Whether in a Chelsea or a France shirt, we are reaching the point at which it is impossible when previewing a game to look beyond Kante. He will, by default, be the most important player on the pitch at the Luzhniki Stadium.

How do Croatia stop him? Their best bet is to simply avoid the central midfield, a counter-intuitive move for a side that relies heavily upon the qualities of Modric and Ivan Rakitic but one that could prove fruitful. Croatia's long diagonal passes into the full-backs caused serious damage to England, creating an overload on the flanks that allowed Zlatko Dalic's side to push the English back and whip crosses towards Mario Mandzukic. Crucially, it also meant bypassing the middle of the pitch.

Kante, of course, would still find a way to be useful, whether by snapping at the heels of the defenders as they aim diagonal passes or, more likely, intercepting the diagonals just before they land at the feet of the full-backs. However, Kante will have an awful lot to do against such a resilient and indefatigable Croatian team that will do their best to exploit space around Paul Pogba. The Manchester United midfielder often ambles further forward, exposing his France team-mate. It is in this area of the field that Modric and Croatia can overwhelm Kante and win the match.

But then there's Kante's attacking play. He is much more than a destroyer, often weaving through the opposition lines and playing an incisive forward pass to launch one of France's counter-attacks. Didier Deschamps' cautious tactics mean quick breakaways, led by Kante, will be a crucial element of the French game plan on Sunday; if Croatia are drawn forward, emboldened by France's conservatism, then Kylian Mbappe will find space on the counter. Just as Raheem Sterling found in the first half of the semi-finals, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida are too slow to cope with strikers that play on the shoulder of the last defender. Mbappe, then, can be the matchwinner should Kante successfully transition France from defence into attack.

It would be a symbolically pertinent way for the tournament to end; Mbappe, the teenage prodigy, grabbing the headlines and the gongs while the ever-humble Kante takes a back seat, his unique genius not spotted by all but appreciated and adored by the fans and team-mates closest to him.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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