N’Golo Kante has been defended by Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel amid a poor run of form that has Tony Cascarino wondering if the midfielder’s best days are behind him.
Kante, 31, has struggled for the Blues in a stop-start season that has been hampered by injuries and illness, and looked out of sorts in the west London side’s Champions League defeat to Real Madrid.
The French World Cup winner was not his usual self and appeared drained of the energy he usually has in spades as the Spanish giants ran out 3-1 winners at Stamford Bridge, giving Tuchel’s side a mountain to climb ahead of their second-leg trip to the Bernabeu for a place in the semi-finals.
His performance led to questions over his form following the match, with Tuchel staunchly defending the midfield general, who has been one of Chelsea’s most consistent players since his arrival from Leicester City in 2016 – helping to deliver Premier League, Champions League and Europa League titles, an FA Cup and wins in the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.
“One thing that is very clear is that N’Golo is a key player because he has outstanding and unique qualities,” the Blues boss told talkSPORT after the Real defeat.
“For other teams it might be a striker or a central defender, but with N’Golo he is a unique player who can give something to the team that nobody else can.
“He has struggled this season with consistency due to injuries and illness, and this is also a reason for our [the team’s] inconsistency. We missed him for so many matches, if you look at the minutes that he was available and could play.”
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The German boss said fasting may have had an impact on his display, with Kante currently observing Ramadan due to his Islam faith.
However, Tuchel conceded Kante has played during Ramadan before, while it didn’t appear to hamper fellow Muslim Karim Benzema. who recently said fasting makes him ‘stronger’ and who scored a fine hat-trick against the Blues.
“Now he is fasting due to his religion, so that is maybe another reason,” Tuchel added.
“He’s not doing it for the first time and he is used to it, but of course if you for many days don’t eat or drink during the day, it can have an effect
“Maybe it’s also part of the explanation why we had the feeling he was not on his highest level, if you compare how much of an influence he was in the last campaign against Real Madrid.
“This is a unique player with unique qualities and of course we tried to push him and we’ve tried to help him, because we know what we have when he is on the pitch.”
With Tuchel admitting Kante has not been playing at his ‘highest level’ this season, former Chelsea striker Cascarino admitted his fears over the midfielder’s form.
“I was very concerned, and I’ve been concerned for a while about the amount of injuries he’s picked up,” said the Weekend Sports Breakfast host.
“He is always running everywhere, he covers every blade of grass in a football game and he’s brilliant at doing it. He’s one of my favourite midfielders, because he’s one of the most unselfish midfielders you will see.
“It’s everything for the team with N’Golo, but I do feel like he’s played himself out physically, he looks a bit burned out.
“I hope it’s an injury and he can come back, but I have looked at N’Golo recently, certainly in the last three months, and have thought, ‘I wonder if we’ve seen the best of him now’. Is he starting to go a little on the wane?
“I hope I’m wrong, I really do, because he has been a terrific player.”
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Alan Brazil and Ray Parlour are the most lethal strike force on British radio.
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