N’Golo Kante had another wonderful big-game performance as Chelsea beat Real Madrid 2-0 to reach the Champions League final for the third time.
The Blues went into the game with a slight advantage thanks to Christian Pulisic’s away goal in the first leg but knew the tie was still very open. Following a relatively slow start, Chelsea took a first-half lead with Timo Werner heading in after Kai Havertz’s lovely chipped attempt rebounded off the crossbar.
Chelsea had numerous chances in the second half to put the tie beyond doubt but spurned them all until Mason Mount tapped in from close range from Christian Pulisic’s ball across the box. But once again in a big game it was all about Kante.
The Frenchman has had a strange couple of years at Chelsea, played across the midfield under Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard, at times looking a shadow of his former self especially when used as a single-holding midfielder. But he has re-found his high levels under Tuchel as part of a midfield duo recently alongside Jorginho, merging his usual high defensive standards with the improved attacking mind he forged under Sarri.
Chelsea are the first team in Champions League history to reach the final of the men's and women's competition in the same season.
Emma Hayes 🤝 Thomas Tuchel. pic.twitter.com/tgTjy07rGU
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 5, 2021
“I think Kante showed other sides of his game,” former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand said on BT Sport’s coverage of Chelsea’s win.
“We all know him as a holding midfielder and someone who’s tenacious, [has] energy, pace, can get around the park, wins second balls, always on the front foot, retrieves the ball so well.
“But he was actually the person who instigated the best attacking plays for Chelsea today in being on the front foot, winning it and then feeding someone else to go and get an opportunity.”
And it was Kante who started the moves for both of Chelsea’s goals. In the first half, the Frenchman received the ball from Andreas Christensen in the middle of the Real Madrid half and took Nacho out of the equation with a wonderful first touch before nutmegging Casemiro with his second.
Chelsea lead! 🙌
A beautiful one-two in the build-up, before Havertz goes so close to scoring a delicious chip…
But Timo Werner is on hand to score the rebound from close range! pic.twitter.com/MWGVcseVul
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 5, 2021
Kante then played a quick one-two with Werner and passed the ball onto Havertz whose shot resulted in Werner giving Chelsea the lead. There was relief for Werner who hasn’t had the best of luck in front of goal this season, but immediately everyone was waxing lyrical about Kante’s role. He ended the first half having created two chances, more than any other Chelsea player and the joint-most on the pitch alongside Luka Modric, another sign of his improvements.
The Frenchman ended the match with another chance created, taking him clear of any other player on the pitch for either side, and completing one take-on, while still making four interceptions and one block as part of a midfield that frustrated Real Madrid. But he wasn’t done there, after Chelsea had wasted a number of good chances to score a second, including a shot from Kante himself, the Frenchman won the ball high up the pitch and immediately put Real Madrid on the back foot.
N’Golo Kanté’s game by numbers vs. Real Madrid:
100% aerial duels won
4 penalty area entries
4 duels won
3 chances created (most)
2 ball recoveries
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 5, 2021
He played the ball out wide to Pulisic who set up Mount to kill the tie and send Chelsea through to their third ever Champions League final and first since winning the competition in 2012. Kante pressing high up the pitch late on is something we’ve grown accustomed to seeing under Tuchel and former Chelsea midfielder Joe Cole believes he is thriving in the system.
“I think the system really suits him, because when you’ve got the three centre-halves back there and you’ve got (Antonio) Rudiger and Christensen either side, they’re very aggressive so they go right into midfield,” he said.
“He’s always got Jorginho, who never vacates, and Kante leaves him to go. When he reads it, and he sees a ball, he goes and wins it and then he’s just off. He was fantastic.”
Kante wasn’t the only midfielder to catch the eye on Wednesday night as Havertz had another good game, continuing his growth in this Chelsea team after a slow first season in England. The German went agonisingly close to opening the scoring in the build up to Werner’s goal and had another good chance in the second half. But his all-round play was impressive, leading Ferdinand to compare him to a former Man Utd team-mate.
“He reminds me of (Dimitar) Berbatov, a player I played with at Manchester United,” he said.
“He’s got that little lazy swagger at times, when you feel like he’s got a bit of nonchalance about him. But the guy’s just so smooth man. The game slows down to his pace and he gets things done really, really elegantly, his touch is always exquisite.
“And I think he’s going to grow into being a really important player and a player that does really showcase his talents in a way that not many others can.”
“He’s very classy and he’s going to score hatfuls of goals because of that reason and Tuchel alluded to that before the game,” Cole added.
“He’s got a physicality, he’s going to score headers, he’s going to score from set pieces, I think he’s Berbatov but with a yard [of pace]. He’s quicker.”
Attention for Chelsea will quickly turn to the Premier League this weekend where they face Manchester City looking to keep their top four destiny in their own hands, but it will be hard not to be drawn to preparing for the Champions League final against the same opposition come May 29.