Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante are 30 and grew up less than 30km from each other in Parisian neighborhoods. They helped Leicester City beat 5000-1 odds and win the Premier League in 2015-16.
On Saturday, they could line up against each other in the biggest club game of their careers --- the Champions League final. "Could" because Kante's hamstring injury has Chelsea sweating bucket after metaphorical bucket ahead of the game against Manchester City.
If there is one thing that is giving Chelsea hope --- and they will clutch at anything to get Kante fit and available --- it is that the midfielder has been here before. In 2019, he was set to miss the Europa League final with a knee injury but played the full game as Chelsea beat Arsenal 4-1 in Baku.
Numbers tell the Kante story, albeit partially. He made 59 interceptions in the Premiership this term. Among midfielders with at least 20 games --- Kante played 30 --- only Leicester City's Wilfred Ndidi had more, 61. Kante made 79 tackles in the league and was ninth among midfielders overall. Against Atletico Madrid at home in the round of 16 Champions League game which Chelsea won 2-0, Kante recovered possession 13 times. It equalled a club Champions League record made against Barcelona on 2018. Guess who did it then? N'Golo Kante.
What these don't accurately convey are Kante's positional intelligence, anticipation and indefatigability. A quote from Claudio Ranieri to 'The Athletic' does highlight the last attribute: "Kante was like a little scooter who never stopped. I just had to find a way of getting him into the team," said Ranieri who was Leicester City coach when Kante joined in 2015. After the league was won, it used to be said that 70% of the world is water; the rest is covered by N'Golo Kante.
Thomas Tuchel isn't the first Chelsea coach to say that it feels like they are playing with more than 11 with Kante in the team. It is why Chelsea fans sing, "smaller than a midget. But always owns the Bridge in every game he plays." France too have a song for him which everyone, coach Didier Deschamps included, sang during and after the 2018 World Cup; the packed terraces often joining in. He is short, he is nice and he has stopped Leo Messi is a rough translation of some of the lines.
Kante has resumed training after being rested when Chelsea sneaked into the Premiership top four last week. Since City love possession football --- they played 42 passes before Sergio Aguero scored against Everton, their longest sequence since November 2018 -- Kante will be crucial for his interceptions and the ability to move the ball forward. Under Tuchel, Kante has the freedom to move instead of being the base of the midfield like Claude Makalele, one of his heroes, was for France, Real Madrid and Chelsea. Kante reads the game very well as does centre-back Thiago Silva behind him and them staying switched on and fit is imperative if a second Champions League title is to be won.
Riyad Mahrez Owning the right side
If City are to win their first, it is likely Riyad Mahrez will play an important role. The Algerian was - some would say, is --- prone to attempting one step-over too many and one extra dribble that kills a promising move. But the right side of the midfield is his with Mahrez taking on the rival left-back often being a key weapon in City's build-up play. An exquisite first touch also helps Mahrez, the Algeria captain and Africa Cup of Nations winner, cut in fast and fire on goal.
With 14 goals, including a hattrick in the league, and nine assists in 47 games Mahrez is fourth in City's list this term but only Ilkay Guendogan (17 goals and 4 assists in 45 games) and Kevin de Bruyne (18 assists and 10 goals in 39 games) have played less. "He sees pictures. He can see the final pass as well. He is the complete package. That is why he gets goals and assists," former Leicester City player Andy King told 'Sky Sports'.
Riyad Mahrez, who joined City in 2018 on a 60 million pound transfer, has played 11 Champions League games, one less than Kante. Both stamped their influence on the semi-finals; Mahrez scored three of City's four goals against Paris St Germain and Kante showed there is more to his game than breaking down moves cleanly by contributing to goals from Mason Mount and Timo Werner in the 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge.
The boys from the Banlieues
Before they joined Leicester City, neither was sure how far they would go as professionals. Strength of character is an overused phrase in sport but it is one that accurately sums up their rise.
Riyad Mahrez grew up in Sarcelles, one of Paris's Banlieues--suburban communes often in the news for being neglected and crime-ridden. For all his technical abilities, he was deemed too frail for top-flight football. At 18, he joined an amateur fourth division club in Brittany. In 2013, he was playing for the second team at Le Havre which was then in the second division. From there, he moved to Leicester who were in the Championship, England's second division.
Kante's father died when he was 11 and growing up in Rueil Malmaison, a neighborhood almost 13 km from the city center in Paris. He would sort and sell garbage. This was when France was hosting the 1998 World Cup.
Like Mahrez, Kante joined Boulogne in the French second division when he was 18. He joined Leicester from Caen in Ligue 2.
"A few years ago I was playing in the French lower divisions. Five years ago I wasn't even professional," Kante said after winning the English football writers' association award in London in 2017.
One of the Premiership's best paid players --- Kante reportedly earns 145,000 pounds a week after a 32 million pound move to Chelsea in 2016 --- he still drives a white 20,000 pound mini Cooper he brought when he was at Leicester. Once, while driving to training, the car was hit by a lorry. Though shaken, Kante allowed fans to take selfies.
Kante has two Premier League titles; Riyad Mahrez three. On Saturday, one of them will have their first Champions League medal.
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