Man City v Chelsea: Journey from Caen via Leicester reunites Kante and Mahrez in Porto

By Sports Desk May 27, 2021

Stade Michel d'Ornano in Caen is a long way from Porto's Estadio do Dragao. To be precise, it's 1,573 kilometers in the unlikely event you ever have the urge to drive across Portugal and Spain, then all the way up to Normandy in northern France.

In terms of staging posts within a career, second tier French football in 2013-14 and the 2021 Champions League final are a million miles apart. But this is the journey Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante have taken, almost stride for stride, as they wait to contest the European club game's greatest prize.

A look at Ligue 2's YouTube highlights from the first time the Manchester City winger and Chelsea midfielder faced one another on September 27, 2013, when Caen hosted Le Havre, reveals a few very familiar traits.

Kante can be seen bustling around with intent from the right of Caen's midfield three, although three-minute condensed match clips are obviously not the best medium for showcasing his qualities.

Mahrez created Le Havre's best first-half chance with a cute throughball, almost snuck in a cheeky free-kick at the near post and then did that first touch. You know the one – kills a cross-field ball stone dead with the outside of his left boot, twists the defender inside out and gets a shot off.

That attempt was saved, however, and a Faycal Fajr penalty after Le Havre's Zargo Toure was sent off gave Caen a 1-0 win. They would go on to secure promotion, beginning a remarkable mid-decade run of success for Kante, irrespective of which team he happened to be representing.

But Mahrez was the first to escape Ligue 2, joining Leicester City midway through the campaign and similarly earning promotion from the Championship.

After an improbable escape from relegation in 2014-15, Leicester parted company with manager Nigel Pearson and appointed Claudio Ranieri. Kante was one of his close-season signings, with Caen pocketing £5.6m, and the rest is gloriously improbable history.

That was a hefty outlay compared to the £400,000 Leicester sent Le Havre's way for Mahrez, who finished the Foxes' Premier League-winning campaign in 2015-16 with 17 goals, 11 assists and the PFA Players' Player of the Year award.

 

While the Algeria winger won the approval of his fellow professionals and Jamie Vardy's astonishing rise from non-league to the top of the English game earned him the FWA Footballer of the Year prize, the biggest revelation was arguably Kante.

"This player Kante, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack of batteries hidden in his shorts," Ranieri told the Players' Tribune.

"I tell him, 'One day, I'm going to see you cross the ball and then finish the cross with a header yourself!'."

A run to the final of Euro 2016 followed with France, and Kante was the one jewel of the Leicester triumph to depart in its immediate afterglow. He joined Chelsea for £32m, helped to drive Antonio Conte's men to the Premier League title and cleaned up at the end of season awards.

Twelve months later, he was a world champion as France romped to glory at Russia 2018. Kante was football's sure thing, at club or international level. And yet, in hindsight, the full palate of his qualities were perhaps a touch under-appreciated.

All eulogies came back to that insatiable work-rate, that battery pack in the shorts. Maurizio Sarri's installation as Antonio Conte's successor at Stamford Bridge, bringing with him his cerebral deep-lying playmaker Jorginho, would mean a change of pace.

In his two seasons under Conte, Kante made 127 and 113 tackles. This was down from terrifyingly relentless 175 (winning 71.4 per cent – his best success rate in the Premier League) in that season at Leicester, which does much to explain how his reputation was established and remained in the popular imagination.

 

In 2018-19, his tackles number fell to 74 and it has never returned to previous levels under Frank Lampard or Thomas Tuchel. But as a shuttling midfield presence under Sarri, his 73 touches in the opposition box that season were more than in his entire Premier League career up until that point, with four goals and four assists his reward.

Where some feared Jorginho's arrival would shove Kante out of his preferred position, they now operate very effectively in tandem and will probably do so against City. For all that the former Napoli man is charged with setting the tempo, Kante remains tidily efficient in possession. His pass completion in every season at the Bridge tracks between 85 and 89 per cent.

The 30-year-old stamped his presence all over the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid and was named man of the match for both legs in a 3-1 aggregate triumph. During the second encounter in London, Kante made five interceptions – only bettered by six from Jorginho – but also made more passes in the opposition half (25) and created more chances (three) than any other Chelsea player.

This week in Porto, UEFA is displaying the Champions League trophy in a public square opposite Jardim de Joao Chagas. The shimmering prize is flanked by a City shirt bearing Kevin De Bruyne's name and number. The Chelsea jersey has Kante on the back. He is unquestionably one of the main attractions and keys to victory this weekend.

The same can be said for Mahrez, although his adjustment to life in Manchester was not as seamless as Kante's in England's capital.

As his old team-mate adapted to Sarri, Mahrez struggled to take on board Guardiola's demands having got the £60m move he had long craved. However, his 2019-20 returns showed improvements, with 11 Premier League goals and nine assists – up from seven and four a year earlier. Waiting patiently on the right-wing for his team-mates to disrupt opponents and leave him with one-on-one duels was different to the freedom he enjoyed at Leicester but starting to pay dividends.

He is now one of Guardiola's go-to men, came second behind Ruben Dias in City's player of the year poll and is a scorer of heavy goals.

When the Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund was on the line, 2-2 on aggregate with his team heading out on away goals at Signal Iduna Park, Mahrez slammed home a high-pressure penalty after an interminable VAR delay. He went on to score a goal in each leg as Paris Saint-Germain were swept aside 4-1 on aggregate, including the winner through a disintegrating defensive wall at the Parc des Princes.

"Riyad always was at a good level," Guardiola said earlier this month. "Maybe at the beginning he didn’t play much in the first season because we already had a structure with Leroy [Sane] and the other ones, but step by step he regained his position.

"Lately he has been playing really good and hopefully he can maintain this level."

At the other end of the square where Kante's shirt stands alongside the trophy he hopes to lift this weekend, UEFA have installed a merchandise stall where a shirt to commemorate the all-English final will set you back €60.

That amounts to fleecing that could not be further away from the value for money Leicester enjoyed when they plucked Mahrez and Kante from France and set them on the path to Porto.

Related items

  • Golden State Warriors: Dubs must build for one more run with Curry & Co. Golden State Warriors: Dubs must build for one more run with Curry & Co.

    The Golden State Warriors' 2020-21 season ended in heartbreaking fashion, but you might not know that reading head coach Steve Kerr's most recent comments.

    Golden State rode an MVP calibre season from Stephen Curry to eighth spot in the Western Conference and a place in the play-in tournament.

    Yet that was where it all fell apart.

    They missed out on the seventh seed as a miracle LeBron James three-pointer helped the Los Angeles Lakers to a dramatic victory, and the Warriors were then outplayed by the Memphis Grizzlies in the final play-in game to ensure they would be watching the postseason from home.

    Despite that bitter end, Kerr was left extremely encouraged after seeing his team win 16 of their last 22 regular-season games despite playing a second successive season without Curry's backcourt running mate Klay Thompson, who suffered a torn Achilles before the campaign.

    "I'm really excited. I feel like we got our mojo back at the end of the year," Kerr told The Athletic. 

    "The offseason has been productive in terms of Klay now breaking through. He's on the court, he's running, he's feeling really good. I talked to him last week. He's just in a completely different mindset. The light's at the end of the tunnel.

    "Steph and Draymond [Green] are both in a great place after that close to the season, feeling like they are on top of their games. Andrew [Wiggins] had a really good season for us. Jordan Poole emerged. Juan [Toscano-Anderson] has turned himself into a rotation player, perfect for our style.

    "Now we get a training camp with James [Wiseman], a whole season of development, plus [picks] seven and 14 in a deep draft."

    However, Kerr's excitement for the new season being vindicated hinges on what they do with those picks and how they stack the roster to help the core of Curry, Thompson and Green contend for at least one more championship.

    Use those prime draft selections and continue to develop Wiseman with a view to building sustainable long-term success, or trade the picks and young assets for another star? It's truly a case of evolution or revolution for the Warriors this offseason and, with Kerr in Japan with Team USA, he won't be in the building to influence the final call.

    Curry cooks up a storm

    Curry's was a season that merited more than the five first-place votes he received in the MVP race.

    His points per game average of 32 was the highest of his career, topping the 30.1 ppg he produced in 2015-16 when Curry was named unanimous MVP and the Warriors broke the single-season wins record by going 73-9.

    Per 100 possessions, Curry's ppg of 32.1 was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9) as he continued to embellish his resume as the greatest shooter of all time.

    Curry's 5.3 three-pointers made per game was a league record, the 2020-21 season his third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He remains the only player to achieve the feat even once.

    He had seven games with 40 plus points and at least 10 threes last season. No other player has registered more than three such performances in their career.

    Becoming the first player to post three 50-point games in a season aged 32 or older and producing a scoring average that was the highest by a player of that age in league history, Curry is clearly showing no signs of slowing down.

    Still, his usage rate of 34.8 per cent is probably not sustainable for the long term, but if the Warriors are to allow Curry more rest in 2021-22, they must solve the problem of what happens when he comes off the floor.

    A damaging drop-off

    The most dramatic illustration of the Warriors' struggles without Curry came back in April. With Curry and Green each on the sideline, they were thrashed 130-77 by the Toronto Raptors.

    The 53-point reverse was the second-largest defeat in franchise history, though it can be argued it was a necessary low point for Golden State. The Warriors subsequently lost to the Atlanta Hawks before embarking on that 16-6 surge.

    And the numbers from across the season paint a telling picture of Curry's importance to the Warriors' cause.

    With him on the court, the Warriors scored 112.8 points per 100 possessions, compared to 101.9 when he was off the floor, while their effective field goal percentage dropped from 57.1 to 51.6.

    The Warriors effectively lost 8.8 points per 100 possessions when Curry was absent. Their point differential was plus-4.3 with him on the court compared to minus-4.5 when he played the role of spectator.

    Ensuring that disparity is not as severe in 2021-22 will be a key focus of the Warriors' offseason, yet there were still some encouraging performances from those not named Curry to build hope that Golden State can contend to go deep into the postseason again.

    Andrew Wiggins set career-highs in field goal percentage (47.7) and three-point shooting (38 per cent) while Jordan Poole established himself as a productive option off the bench, shooting 42.2 per cent over those final 22 games.

    Perhaps the best find of the season was Bay Area native Juan Toscano-Anderson who, having been signed to a two-way contract in December, saw that converted to a full-time deal in May.

    Toscano-Anderson was seventh in effective field goal percentage (66.7) and eighth in true shooting percentage (67.6), deservedly earning a spot in the frontcourt rotation. Yet, for all the positives that emerged as the Warriors got hot late in the campaign, their ability to take a step towards vying for the title may be contingent on what they decide to do with last year's most high-profile addition.

    The Wiseman conundrum

    The Warriors have the capital to stack the deck in Curry's favour with the addition of either seasoned pros or promising prospects. They were one of the winners of the NBA lottery as the top-three protected pick the Minnesota Timberwolves sent them in the Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell trade became the seventh selection in this year's draft.

    That gives them the flexibility to pursue a trade for more experienced help, but whether they go down that avenue depends on what the Warriors elect to do with Wiseman, whom they took second overall in 2020 despite him having only three games of collegiate experience.

    And they were not granted a full season's evidence to aid their decision about the 20-year-old center as a meniscus injury brought his rookie campaign to a premature end.

    There were signs that Wiseman could blossom into the athletic big man who can make a difference at both ends, with center long since a position of concern for the Warriors even at the height of their dynasty.

    He posted double figures in points in 24 of his 39 games but a net rating of minus 10.1 spoke to a player who still needs time to acclimatise to the challenge of playing at the highest level.

    That is no surprise given Wiseman's inexperience, and Kerr is hopeful he will make strides with the chance to get a full offseason under his belt, however, with the front office reportedly exploring trade options, will the Warriors have the patience to stick with him with potentially more immediate contributors available?

    Golden State would surely have to include Wiseman in any potential blockbuster trade, with the Warriors mentioned as a potential destination for Oakland native Damian Lillard, the increasingly maligned Ben Simmons and Raptors star Pascal Siakam

    Bradley Beal, whom Curry beat to the scoring title, is reportedly viewed as the Warriors' top option in a trade, but there have as yet been no signs that any deal is on the horizon.

    After another year with no postseason play, Golden State's big three will want the talent around them to improve in a hurry but, if the Warriors do not identify a player whom they deem worthy of a price that includes Wiseman, they may need to be patient in awaiting the dividends a player of his obvious physical gifts can deliver.

    Verdict: Evolution

    The Warriors are the team to watch in the draft as reports of trade discussions continue to swirl.

    Despite being flush with capital, it is appearing more and more likely that if they do send some of their resources to a rival, it will not be as part of a trade that changes the complexion of the league.

    Instead, the more feasible outcome is that the Warriors do a deal to supplement the core that initially shook up the NBA in 2015 by jump-shooting their way to the title, rather than reshaping it with the addition of another star.

    Myles Turner is said to have been the subject between the talks between the Warriors and the Indiana Pacers, and his arrival would give the Warriors a difference-making big on both ends of the floor.

    Turner missed the final 18 games of last season with a sprained toe but still led the NBA with a block percentage of 8.8 and was seventh among centers that played a minimum of 25 games with an average of 1.5 made threes.

    In the draft, the reported urging from Curry, Thompson and Green for the organisation to get players who can help them now may force the Warriors to target more experienced rookies having gone young with Wiseman last year.

    Oregon guard Chris Duarte is 24 and was named to the Pac-12's All-Defensive Team last season while finishing third in the conference with a field goal percentage of 53.2.

    Davion Mitchell turns 23 in September and led the Big 12 in three-point shooting, converting on 44.7 per cent of his efforts from beyond the arc, and James Bouknight of UConn is thought to be in the mix as a younger shot-creator who was second in the Big East in 2020-21 with 23.7 points per 40 minutes.

    The Warriors' front office is seemingly facing external and internal pressure to utilise their draft capital to land a premier player who can propel them back to the top of the Western Conference and firmly open the window for Curry, Thompson and Green to polish their resumes further.

    Yet a team led by a player who has spent his Hall of Fame career redefining limits with his remarkable shooting range may find their trade possibilities restricted, and Curry and Warriors fans alike might have to reconcile themselves with an offseason that only slightly improves Golden State's odds of winning now but sets them up to stay relevant once his days of carrying their hopes are in the past.

  • Real Madrid: Can returning Ancelotti restore side to rapid, rampant past? Real Madrid: Can returning Ancelotti restore side to rapid, rampant past?

    Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland? How about both? The questions are the same as Real Madrid enter each transfer window. As in 2020, though, such queries are wholly unrealistic.

    Prior to last season, which began just six months into the coronavirus pandemic, Madrid were not able to make a single first-team signing. Their most significant business was the €40million sale of Achraf Hakimi to Inter.

    It is a similar story 12 months on, having failed to deliver silverware in front of an empty Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium. Free agent David Alaba is Los Blancos' sole recruit and even his arrival is offset by the departures of fellow centre-backs Sergio Ramos – at the end of his contract – and Raphael Varane – with a sale to Manchester United agreed for €50m.

    Financial results earlier this month reported a loss in revenue of "close to €300m" due to the pandemic. A post-tax profit of €874,000 for 2020-21 was achieved due to "intense spending saving measures in all areas", read a statement, which added: "With regard to the economic situation, current forecasts indicate that the recovery from the pre-pandemic situation will not be immediate. In this context, the club will continue in the effort so far to contain spending."

    One of the world's grandest clubs are doing things on the cheap. A change of coach was only initiated by Zinedine Zidane, whose replacement, Carlo Ancelotti, has been plucked from mid-table Everton – although Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri claimed this week he was offered the position.

    Ancelotti has been here before, of course, having led Madrid to 'La Decima' in 2013-14 after a 12-year wait. How he raises the club again without this time breaking the world transfer record two months into the role is another question – one Stats Perform attempts to answer with the aid of Opta data.

    Return of rapid Real?

    Just as Ancelotti is returning to Madrid, so too is Gareth Bale. It was he who Madrid splashed out €100m on to inspire Ancelotti's first side to Champions League glory. Now he could be handed a starring role again.

    The winger appeared to have no future under Zidane but will surely be the chief beneficiary if Ancelotti returns the team to the attacking approach he employed previously at the Santiago Bernabeu. Across his two seasons at the helm, Madrid scored 222 LaLiga goals – 22 more than across the past three campaigns combined now.

    That would mean a significant shift, though. Zidane's men have not just scored fewer goals, they have moved at a slower pace. Madrid averaged 4.7 passes and 12.7 seconds per sequence in the league in 2020-21, with 662 open-play sequences of 10 passes or more. In 2013-14, with Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria leading a rapid forward line, Madrid's sequences typically lasted only 3.9 passes and 10.3 seconds, with just 475 10-plus pass sequences. Those numbers only marginally increased in Ancelotti's second season.

    This change in style is also evidenced by Madrid's direct speed, having moved 1.93 metres upfield per second in 2013-14 but just 1.41 in an average sequence last term. Making the most of the attributes of Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria, that Madrid team had 122 direct attacks but only 112 build-up attacks – figures that have altered drastically in opposite directions to 87 and 165 respectively.

    The football under Ancelotti was undoubtedly exciting and appeals again. Even as he was sacked in 2015, president Florentino Perez said: "The affection that the players and the fans have for Carlo is the same as the affection I myself have for him." Implementing that system again may not be entirely straightforward, though.

    Ancelotti arrived in 2013 only a year removed from the 121-goal 2011-12 LaLiga campaign – the most Madrid have ever scored in a season. The Italian gave his superstars the freedom to play but did not need to reconfigure their approach. That tallies with the rest of a glittering career to date, which has chiefly seen him credited with man-managing big names rather than introducing the sort of tactical tweaks that might almost double a team's attacking output.

    If that is Ancelotti's desire, though, between Bale, Vinicius Junior and Eden Hazard, Madrid should at least still have the players to tear through teams at pace. Indeed, getting Hazard fit and firing two years and four goals into his LaLiga career will be as crucial as rehabilitating Bale. The former Chelsea forward may put the famed 'diva whisperer' to the test, but Madrid cannot afford to have a €100m man not contributing.

    Age is against Ancelotti

    Madrid's play without the ball has also changed in the time Ancelotti has been away, and getting them to perform in this regard as they did during his first stint will be more difficult still. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro – Madrid's long-standing midfield trio – were on board when Ancelotti left the club six years ago. Modric will be 36 in September. Class and experience are on their side, but the energy of youth is not.

    With Di Maria occupying a key role in the 4-2-3-1 formation and Modric finding his feet in Spain, Madrid pressed relentlessly in 2013-14. Opponents were allowed only 9.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) amid Los Blancos' 499 pressed sequences. As a result, Madrid's attacks started 42.3 metres upfield on average, boosted by their 179 high turnovers, of which 45 led to shots and nine to goals.

    Even Ancelotti could not maintain these standards the following year, as Di Maria departed for the Premier League while a thigh injury restricted Modric to 16 games. Madrid regressed in every category.

    In 2021, it is not that Madrid do not press, it is that they do not do so with the same intensity. There were 430 pressed sequences last term and still an impressive 178 high turnovers, but opponents were allowed 11.3 PPDA, with Madrid unable to harry at a comparable rate. It is unlikely that statistic improves as Kroos also moves through his thirties and yet more minutes are pumped into the legs of one of modern football's great midfields. The emergence of Federico Valverde – young and versatile – helps, but Ancelotti may well face the unenviable task of dismantling a unit he helped put together.

    Alaba alters the complexion

    To this point, with a former coach returning to guide the same players, Madrid's approach appears closer to devolution than evolution or revolution. The defence at least will ensure this team has a new sheen, albeit not one that necessarily improves Ancelotti's chances of success at home or abroad.

    Alaba is a fine player with vast experience, six years younger than Ramos but with 10 Bundesliga titles and two Champions League triumphs to his name. It is a like-for-like change that makes sense, even with Ramos' emotional ties to the Bernabeu. However, asking Alaba to also replace Varane, the outgoing captain's stalwart defensive partner, feels like a tough ask.

    Rather than settle into a new club in a new country alongside a World Cup winner – "Varane, of course, I would like to play with him," Alaba said as recently as last week – Madrid's sole signing seems set to be asked to perform the role of the senior man alongside Eder Militao, who has made just 23 LaLiga starts across two seasons.

    Yet Militao crucially has attributes Alaba does not, with the converted full-back far less combative than the two departed defenders. At Bayern, in the Bundesliga last season, Alaba contested only 5.0 duels per 90 minutes – fewer than Varane (5.4), Ramos (6.4) and Militao (7.9) in LaLiga. He won just 55.4 per cent of those, another low as Varane (67.9 per cent) led the way.

    Militao could then be tasked with getting tight to opposition forwards, but Alaba might find it tougher to avoid being picked on in the air. He contested a meagre 1.2 aerial duels per 90, down on 2.3 for Varane, 4.3 for Ramos and 5.2 for Militao. As Varane won a league-leading 76.0 per cent of these duels and Ramos came out on top in 63.8 per cent, opponents faced a scrap against either centre-back. Alaba's 51.4 per cent success rate shows why he tends to avoid such encounters.

    An area of real strength for Madrid could now become a weakness. Only Sevilla (four) conceded fewer headed goals than Madrid (five) in the league last term, while Real Betis (five goals conceded) were the sole side to be tighter from set-pieces than Zidane's outfit (six). With Ramos and Varane marshalling the area, Madrid faced the fourth-fewest headed attempts (58). They are unlikely to rank as impressively again with 5ft 11in Alaba at the heart of the defence.

    Madrid are unlikely to make the most of Alaba's versatility – well stocked at left-back but now short in the middle of the back line – yet his ability on the ball, honed in different roles, should at least help to keep Ancelotti's men on the front foot. Part of a dominant Bayern team, Alaba was involved in 4.6 shot-ending sequences and 0.7 goal-ending sequences per 90, having a bigger hand in such opportunities than Ramos (3.9 and 0.4) or Varane (2.9 and 0.3).

    Being able to start attacks from the back plays into the idea Madrid should be set up to again thrill supporters under Ancelotti. Whether they can combine entertainment with results, as the 2013-14 team did so successfully, might be another matter.

  • Rumour Has It: PSG weigh up Pogba options, Spurs eye Vlahovic Rumour Has It: PSG weigh up Pogba options, Spurs eye Vlahovic

    It seems clear that Paul Pogba will not remain at Old Trafford for the long haul.

    Also clear: Paris Saint-Germain's interest in the France midfielder.

    The big question that remains to be answered is the timing of a potential move for the Manchester United man.

     

    TOP STORY – PSG WEIGH UP POGBA OPTIONS

    Paris Saint-Germain are interested in a move for Paul Pogba but are still debating when to make their bid.

    According to The Athletic, PSG have begun discussions to determine Pogba's interest in a move but have not made a formal approach to United.

    While the report says a bid is expected within the next few weeks, it remains a possibility that PSG could wait until Pogba is out of contract in 2022 and deal with the player directly.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.