Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

N'Golo Kante believes Ballon d'Or speculation is way ahead of schedule as he attempts to add Euro 2020 glory to his Champions League success.

After an outstanding performance against Manchester City helped Chelsea become European club champions, Kante wants to make it a double by guiding France to success over the coming month.

The dynamic midfielder was tipped for the highest individual honour in football after Chelsea's 1-0 win over City in Porto, and Les Bleus team-mate Paul Pogba has thrown his support behind the growing clamour.

But Kante said he doesn't "pay attention" to praise of his displays, saying on Sunday: "What I hear can be touching, but I try to do what I have always done: be natural and give my best on the pitch. If it can give people pleasure, so much the better."

Asked about the prospect of winning the Ballon d'Or, Kante said: "It's a bit too soon to speak about that now. We're just getting to halfway through the year, there are six months to go, lots of competitions to play and it doesn't help to say that I deserve it now.

"Some years ago, I was in the top 10, that was the first time and it made me happy. To win it, that would be another story."

It was December 2017 when Kante cracked the top 10, finishing eighth in the vote.

"It's a great personal reward," Kante said of the prize. "I see it like the reward for an accomplished season by a player, but it's not an objective I work towards. Those who have won it are the players who have achieved the great things during their career."

Kante's France and Chelsea team-mate Olivier Giroud has little doubt the 30-year-old would be a worthy winner, describing him as "clearly a contender".

Speaking in a France news conference on Sunday, Giroud said: "We'll start talking to him about the Ballon d'Or if we win the Euros.

"He is stressed and tense when we talk to him about it! But it flatters him of course, even if he doesn't like compliments too much and prefers to keep a low profile. He deserves what happens to him."

Should Kante go on to land the award, which is handed out annually by France Football magazine, he would be the first Frenchman to do so since Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane took the honour in 1998, having inspired hosts France to win the World Cup for the first time.

Paul Pogba believes his France team-mate N'Golo Kante would be a worthy winner of the Ballon d'Or after playing a key role in Chelsea's Champions League success.

It was not too long ago that speculation suggesting Chelsea were tempted to cash in on Kante was rife, with the midfielder struggling with a few injuries in 2019-20.

But he enjoyed a strong 2020-21, evidenced particularly by his performances towards the end of the season in the Champions League.

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.

Heading into the final, he was one of just six midfielders in the 2020-21 competition with a passing accuracy above 85 per cent (86.4), an accuracy into the final third of above 80 per cent (82.1), more than 40 ball recoveries (63), over 500 touches (511) and at least 25 possession wins in the middle third of the pitch (42).

Then, in the final itself, Kante won 11 of 15 duels, recovered the ball 10 times for his team, and, as the shortest man on the pitch, won four out of seven aerial duels – nobody on his team won more. Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0, with Kante a vital component as Pep Guardiola's men lost the midfield battle.

While some in the past might have limited Kante's strengths to the more defensive aspects of the game, his form in the Champions League highlighted that to be unfair, with the World Cup winner actually a far greater all-round player than many give him credit for.

Indeed, international colleague Pogba thinks he is deserving of the most illustrious individual prize of all.

"What I would like to say to the whole world is that the 'NG' we have seen in recent months has always been the same," Pogba told Eurosport. "We talk a lot about his performances but he has always been as good as ever.

"There was no Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi in the semi-final, so it's good to see the performances of the midfielders or even the defenders.

"I said a long time ago that it would be appropriate, if Chelsea won, for him to win the Ballon d'Or. It would be deserved, too.

"He's always performed well. I'm not surprised by what he's doing, I'm just surprised that he's still doing it. He has always played matches like that."

Champions League man of the match N'Golo Kante covers so much ground he is like "two players", according to former Chelsea midfielder and assistant head coach Eddie Newton.

Kante was in imperious form on Saturday as Chelsea edged past Manchester City 1-0 to secure their first Champions League triumph since 2012, Kai Havertz scoring the decisive goal shortly before half-time.

The France international won 11 of 15 duels, recovered the ball 10 times for his team, and the shortest man on the pitch won four out of seven aerial duels – nobody on his team tallied more.

Former Chelsea playmaker Joe Cole hailed Kante's display, telling BT Sport: "I don't think there's a more important player for his team in world football than Kante."

And Newton, who played for Chelsea between 1990 and 1999 and had spells as assistant head coach in 2012 and 2015-16, was in agreement, describing Kante as the Blues' "engine".

"He's an integral part of any team," Newton exclusively told Stats Perform. "He is the engine. He doesn't care about the razzmatazz, he's a very humble human being. 

"He raises his game every single time. He trains the way he plays. His levels are always the same. 

"His mindset is very strong. Physically he's a joke and able to cover so much ground; he's like two players. 

"He inspires players around him. It motivates you to do more. If you're going to war together, you're going to raise your game, that natural human spirit will rise to the occasion. 

"That's what he does; motivates and inspires others to raise their game."

Newton was also fulsome in his praise of Mason Mount and Reece James, who are both expected to be named in Gareth Southgate's final England squad for Euro 2020. 

Mount laid on Havertz's goal with one of three key passes – the most of any player on the pitch – while he finished with a joint game-high pass completion rate of 96 per cent. 

James, meanwhile, superbly shackled City forward Raheem Sterling, making more tackles (seven) and clearances (five) than any player on the pitch. 

Right-back James is a year younger than 22-year-old Mount and Newton believes the pair can be integral figures for Chelsea over the next decade. 

"Everyone at Chelsea is proud of what Mason's done," he said. "It doesn't matter how many people are around you, this young man's mental attributes set him apart. 

"Reece was outstanding and was very close to being man of the match. He took Sterling out of the game, nullified him, forcing Sterling to defend. Maybe he won't get the plaudits, but he was outstanding. 

"He's done himself so many favours with his performances and his attitude. His work rate, concentration and adaptability is very strong. 

"Another one for the future. You're looking at so many players. It's a fantastic squad that is quite young. 

"This is the beginning of a cycle. It could be the next 10 years for Chelsea. For the rest of the league, they'll be looking at Chelsea and it's ominous for them."

Christian Pulisic said it felt "just crazy" as the Chelsea forward became the first American player to be a Champions League winner.

The 22-year-old former Borussia Dortmund star came off the bench in the second half and went close to doubling Chelsea's lead, but they settled for a 1-0 victory over Manchester City.

Speaking after the final in Porto, Pulisic told CBS Sports: "I can't explain it, it's still such a shock. I'm so proud."

He was watched by his parents and a number of friends from the stands at the Estadio do Dragao, making the occasion all the more special.

"I'm so thankful for all the support. To have people here today was amazing," Pulisic said.

"I knew I was going to have to put in the hard work defensively. I wish I put away the chance I had. I didn't quite get under it like I wanted, but in the end this team was always going to win this game and I'm so proud of them."

Plagued by injuries this season, Pulisic was able to bring father Mark and mother Kelley into the celebrations on the pitch to mark a happy ending to a tough campaign.

Pulisic added: "I have my parents here so I've just been speaking to them. I'm so proud to be here.

"It's been a difficult road for me and I couldn't imagine winning the Champions League ever in my life and now I'm here so it's just crazy."

While Chelsea's players head off to summer breaks or away on international duty, Pulisic said the aim next season would be to "come back and try to do the same thing".

Olivier Giroud, who played a significant part in Chelsea reaching the final, was an unused substitute against City.

But the veteran striker, who could have a big role to play for France at Euro 2020, was determined to enjoy the evening.

"It's extraordinary, we had a remarkable route, we knocked out some big teams like Real [Madrid], Atletico wasn't easy, Porto either, and tonight we played against a great team in City," Giroud told RMC Sports.

"It wasn't played out on a big thing, these kinds of matches are played out in details."

Giroud hailed the performance of player of the match and fellow Frenchman N'Golo Kante, whose action-packed display in midfield kept Chelsea moving forward.

"It's right that he was man of the match, he's huge, he won 50 balls, he hurt them," Giroud said.

"He's unbelievable, this guy. It feels like there are 12 players on the pitch with him. I'm happy for him.

"We're a bunch of friends and it shows on the pitch, I'm happy that our efforts have been rewarded. You could see our determination tonight and our desire to go out and get it."

Kai Havertz takes the glory and Timo Werner did everything but score, running Manchester City ragged for over an hour, rewriting the narrative surrounding Chelsea's spending spree of last year.

But perhaps the smartest move by those pulling the strings at Chelsea has been to keep N'Golo Kante, a colossus of this Champions League final; crowding, cramping City's style, always lurking and looking, Kante was absolutely pivotal to the dark blues bossing this match.

The talk was, going back 12 months, that Chelsea were thinking about selling Kante.

Billy Gilmour was emerging, Mason Mount was everything Frank Lampard has ever looked for in a midfielder, and with a big-money Havertz deal in the pipeline it seemed the face of Chelsea's midfield would be a young one.

Kante had endured injuries, and then he was reluctant to immediately return to training when the Premier League's lockdown ended in June, seeking clear assurances of coronavirus safety where others were perhaps in a hurry to get back to Cobham.

Was he as committed as others? Was his injury track record a worry? Lampard – remember him? – memorably killed the Kante exit talk at a stroke last June when he labelled the Frenchman "one of the best midfield players in the world".

"I actually would have loved to play with him, the type of player he is," Lampard said in a news conference. "He has everything, and coming back to Chelsea and managing this club, having N'Golo Kante, is something I really wanted to appreciate and work with."

Lampard presumably watched this final, regardless of his sacking by Chelsea in January, and how he must have again admired the Parisian's all-action efforts.

At full-time, former England and Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand declared on BT Sport: "Kante put on a masterclass in how to retrieve the ball, to defend, to then break things up and be a menace in that midfield. He controlled the game."

Joe Cole, the former Chelsea playmaker, went one step further, saying: "I don't think there's a more important player for his team in world football than Kante. We've watched a showpiece game and with him it looked like man against boys. He drove that Chelsea team."

Before this game, Kante had started seven games and came off the bench six more times in the Champions League this season.

Heading into the final, there had been just six midfielders in this season's competition with a passing accuracy above 85 per cent (Kante: 86.39), an accuracy into the final third of above 80 per cent (82.14), more than 40 ball recoveries (63), over 500 touches (511) and 25 possession wins in the midfield third of the pitch (42).

The others have been Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Toni Kroos – hopes of silverware for Los Blancos ended with the semi-final defeat to Chelsea – plus Atletico Madrid's Koke and the City pair of Rodri and Fernandinho.

That's the City pair who started this final on the substitutes' bench, both having been almost ever-present throughout the European campaign, victims of Pep Guardiola's latest big-match team selection twaddle.

By half-time, Chelsea were in front and Kante was in charge.

Former City midfield hardman Nigel de Jong tweeted: "Not the first half you want to see as a city fan... Kante is running the show at the moment stretching that midfield out. Restore a holding midfielder is key here."

De Jong had nailed it. Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea boss, must have been relieved the Dutchman sent the message on social media rather than as a text to the City dugout.

Ben Chilwell had made an early dash down the left and Kante burst forward, the furthest Chelsea man upfield. Although the move came to nothing, it was a sign he would not simply sit deep.

Moments later, Kante was helping out right-back Reece James against Phil Foden. In the 12th minute it was Kante bursting on to a pass on the edge of the City penalty area, albeit without having the sass to outwit Ruben Dias.

When City broke at pace after Werner twice went close, it was Kante on the edge of the 18-yard box there to make the crucial interception, and a minute later the five foot, seven inch Frenchman was winning the ball in the air at the other end of the pitch but heading just off target from left-back Chilwell's cross.

Proving a terrific nuisance, a hawk constantly surveying the field for his next prey, Kante pinched the ball from Kevin de Bruyne and raced from his own half deep into City territory, feeding Havertz who might have done better but had the ball whipped away from his left foot as he prepared to unload a shot.

Havertz, suddenly with a taste for goal, did better just before the break after Mount's delicious throughball, the young Englishman stepping into an area of the pitch where on another day he might have encountered Fernandinho or Rodri.

Kante teed up Werner for a half-chance before the whistle came for the interval, a cute chip into the penalty area from the right wing showing another unsung aspect of his repertoire.

It continued into the second half, Kante sliding in to take the ball off De Bruyne with a clean tackle as the Belgian darted towards the edge of the Chelsea box.

When De Bruyne went off, dazed by Antonio Rudiger's bodycheck, he might well have been seeing double. But he had endured an hour of that with Kante anyway, or at least it must have felt that way, more often than not finding the Frenchman on his heels.

And so Chelsea's other players raised their game to match Kante, and now they are European champions again. He won 11 of 15 duels, recovered the ball 10 times for his team, and the shortest man on the pitch won four out of seven aerial duels – nobody on his team won more.

In every way possible, he rose to the challenge.

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.

N'Golo Kante "becomes an animal that never stops running" when he puts on the Chelsea shirt, team-mate Davide Zappacosta has told Stats Perform.

The France international has won three major honours in five years at Chelsea since joining from Leicester City, where he played his part in a shock Premier League triumph in 2016.

He has also lifted the World Cup with France and will be looking to add a first Champions League title to his collection when Chelsea take on Manchester City in Saturday's final.

Kante is a fitness doubt for the all-English showpiece and would be a huge miss for the Blues should he fail to fully recover from a niggling hamstring complaint.

The 2.48 interceptions Kante averaged per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season trailed only Wilfred Ndidi (2.52) among midfielders to have played at least 20 times.

He also ranked fifth for tackles per 90 with 3.31 – Leicester's Ndidi again led the way with 3.97 – and his importance was further highlighted in the European win over Atletico Madrid.

Kante recovered possession 13 times in the 2-0 last-16 first-leg victory – the most by a Chelsea player in the Champions League since Kante's own 13 versus Barcelona in February 2018. 

The former Leicester man's on-field persona is completely different to how he acts off it, though, where he often comes across as shy and reserved.

"What makes him so appreciated is his natural goodness and being genuine," said Zappacosta, who played in the same side as Kante for two seasons before spells with Roma and Genoa on loan.
 
"This kind of player conquers our hearts and is respected by all of us. Honestly, outside of the pitch, he is professional and calm; on it, he transforms.

"It's like he suffers from a double personality syndrome. Outside the pitch, he is so calm, and then on it, he becomes an animal that never stops running and is tough in duels.

"But he is an exceptional player and a very good chap."

Kante has formed a solid partnership with Jorginho in front of Chelsea's back four under Thomas Tuchel, the latter also topping Chelsea's scoring charts in the Premier League this season with seven goals, each of them penalties.

And Zappacosta is pleased that his compatriot, who is expected to be part of Italy's final Euro 2020 squad, has proved his doubters wrong.

"He has showed he can adapt to different roles in midfield," Zappacosta said. "Whether it's three midfielders or two, it makes no difference.

"If after so many Chelsea managers he is still in the starting line-up, there must be a reason. I think he is a very good player, very intelligent. He deserves to be there."

Zappacosta is set to return to Chelsea ahead of next season after a year on loan with Genoa, where he made 25 Serie A appearances, scoring four goals.

The 28-year-old has been impressed with the work Tuchel has done in west London since taking over from Frank Lampard midway through the campaign.

"I haven't watched so many Chelsea games in the Premier League because I was often playing at the same time," said Zappacosta, who has been linked with a move to Atalanta.

"But I have watched them in the Champions League and I have been impressed by their solidity and absurd intensity, and most of all by their style and ideas. 

"They play really well and I am so happy they managed to get to the final. I guess you can see the great work done by the new manager and his staff. 

"You see they are compact, intense and almost playing by heart. It is a pleasure to watch them play."

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel is positive over the fitness of N'Golo Kante and Edouard Mendy ahead of the Champions League final.

Midfielder Kante sat out the 2-1 loss to Aston Villa on Sunday as the Blues scraped a top-four finish in the Premier League on the final day thanks to Tottenham's win over Leicester City.

Goalkeeper Mendy was substituted at Villa Park with a rib injury, making him a doubt for the showdown with Manchester City in Porto on Saturday.

However, Tuchel does not appear overly concerned by either injury and is prepared to give them time to recover before he makes a decision on their involvement.

"The situation has not changed with N'Golo in the sense we are still waiting, but it is looking good that he will return to training on Wednesday," he said on Monday.

"I think about changing my tactics now and stop asking about N'Golo. I'll just put him on the pitch in Wednesday training and don't ask anymore. If there are any problems we will just put him in training and put him on the pitch when the game starts on Saturday.

"Maybe I won't talk to the doctors and physios so I don't hear doubts or complaints or nothing. Maybe I have to think about the tactics. It looks good and I hope it stays like this.

"[Mendy] made a huge improvement with the management of pain from when the injury happened, which is good but of course we will need a further update on Wednesday. We hope to have him back.

"Edou will play if he's fit. And if he's not fit on Wednesday, we will try Thursday, and if not then we will try Friday. We will be reasonable and take responsibility for the decision. At the same time, we have trust if he can't make it. We have a strong guy with Kepa [Arrizabalaga] on the bench who would take his place.

"So the race is on. We are happy the images didn't show the injury was too serious. So we are positive. But every hour and every day counts. Hopefully, the team around Edou and he himself can do enough that he is on the pitch. It would be a good boost for us."

Tuchel's primary focus is to allow his squad the chance to rest and recover after a hectic schedule in which Chelsea battled for a top-four league finish and reached the FA Cup final as well as the showpiece clash with City.

"It's mental relaxation now because it was a tight schedule for us being in the race for top four from the first moment we arrived, and making it to the FA Cup and Champions League final meant a huge task to fulfill," he said. "That's why it was a constant up and down, constant pressure, focusing on different competitions, that was not easy.

"So we are absolutely happy and it's an outstanding achievement we made it. Now is the moment for a mental break for the players. I will use it personally to think about how we will approach the game on Saturday. What are the headlines? The key points? How do we approach it mentally, emotionally, tactically?

"This is my day tomorrow to be prepared on Wednesday when the players come back. The players need a bit of distraction and mental rest to breathe. And then I want them to be here on Wednesday full of joy because this is maybe their most exciting week in their life as professional players."

Chelsea will make late checks on the fitness of N'Golo Kante and Kai Havertz for their pivotal match against Aston Villa.

The Blues are one point clear of Liverpool and Leicester City going into the final day of the Premier League season on Sunday.

Only two of those teams will be able to secure a top-four finish, but Chelsea's fate is in their own hands when they travel to Villa.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel confirmed defender Andreas Christensen will return after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury.

Kante left the field in Tuesday's 2-1 win over Leicester with a hamstring problem of his own and is less certain to play.

A test will also be conducted on Havertz, with the upcoming Champions League final on May 29 also a factor Tuchel must weigh up when it comes to playing Kante or Havertz.

"With NG [Kante] it's going to be very close, but there are some hopes he joins team training on Saturday," said Tuchel. "If not, he'll join on Monday. 

"Kai did a test Friday and will be tested in team training [on Saturday].

"Andreas Christensen will be in the squad. He did full training [Thursday and Friday] without any problems. So he will be back."

Tuchel is aware Chelsea are in an exciting period, having bounced back from losing the FA Cup final by beating Leicester in the league, with two more decisive matches to come.

"It's exciting and it's nice if you play for stuff," said the German. "It keeps you at the edge and brings out the best in you. We felt it at Wembley and on Tuesday. 

"We needed to win to maintain our goals and that set a certain intensity and energy, that's very special. 

"It's not always like this for 60 matches a year. When these matches arrive, they are very special and they bring a certain amount of excitement you can't find anywhere else."

Chelsea have won their last three Premier League away games against Aston Villa, last winning four in a row at Villa Park between 1995 and 1999.

Tuchel revealed he would keep track of Leicester and Liverpool as they take on Tottenham and Crystal Palace respectively at the same time.

He said: "For a long period of the game we will be in our bubble, but in the end, if we have results that change the amount of risk we need to take – because we're not leading or not comfortable with our lead – we need to know. 

"We need to be professional. If we need to adapt our risk management in the game, I think it's normal. We will approach the game like the game against Leicester. It's in our hands and can decide things with a win.

"So we prepare to win the game but as you know, there can be a lot of twists and turns so we need to be ready for everything on our pitch.

"The top four would be the main target for all of us. Having a busy schedule made it harder. 

"We had so many games and a tight schedule. It was a complicated situation to reach the final, go back to top-four race, then a semi-final in the Champions League.

"There are so many competitions and so many levels in these competitions. So it demanded a lot of different levels of concentration for us. 

"It's what we worked for and it's still in our hands. We know how hard it is to play at Aston Villa but we are determined to do it."

Villa have lost 10 of their last 12 Premier League meetings with Chelsea (W1 D1), though they did get a draw in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge this season.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have lost their final league game in just one of the last nine campaigns (W6 D2), going down 3-0 at Newcastle United in 2017-18.

They are unbeaten in each of their eight away league games under Tuchel (W6 D2), conceding just four goals in total and never more than once in a match.

Pep Guardiola revealed Manchester City's medical staff are "optimistic" on Ilkay Gundogan's fitness, after the midfielder sustained a knee injury in the defeat at Brighton and Hove Albion.

Gundogan trudged off 56 minutes into Tuesday's contest, with City leading 2-1 at the time – the Germany international having opened the scoring early on, before Phil Foden netted a sensational second and Leandro Trossard replied for Brighton.

The 30-year-old, who has scored 17 goals across all competitions this season, was the recipient of a reckless challenge from Alireza Jahanbakhsh in the first half, and Guardiola cited this as the reason for his eventual departure.

Gundogan had an ice pack strapped to his left knee as he watched on from the sidelines, with City going on to capitulate to goals from Adam Webster and Dan Burn, whose winner sealed Brighton's first top-flight victory over the Citizens since 1981.

With the Champions League final against Chelsea coming up on May 29, Guardiola said Gundogan will be assessed on Wednesday, though the initial prognosis was positive.

"Tomorrow we are going to check it. The doctor is quite optimistic," Guardiola told a news conference.

"The problem is he had a kick and he was running in the second half with a disturbance. I didn't want to take a risk, that's why we did the substitution."

Gundogan may not be the only star midfielder facing a race against time to be fit for the showdown in Porto next week, with Chelsea's N'Golo Kante going off with a problem in their match against Leicester City.

With 32 minutes played at Stamford Bridge, Kante left the field to be replaced Mateo Kovacic.

Kante – who was named in France's squad for Euro 2020 on Tuesday – showed no obvious signs of discomfort but was seen discussing his presumed fitness problem with an animated Thomas Tuchel on the touchline.

Five years have passed since Leicester City stunned the football world and sealed their astonishing first Premier League triumph.

The Foxes had faced relegation the previous season before rallying late in the year but then stormed clear at the summit in 2015-16.

Leicester are now regular Champions League challengers, yet the story of that campaign remains remarkable.

With Opta data, we tell the tale of their title success through their three key performers.
 

VARDY'S GOALS

Jamie Vardy's rags to riches football fairytale story is well documented, but by this point in his career it is fair to say he had not yet made the grade in the Premier League. 

Having scored 16 times in their 2013-14 promotion campaign, Vardy scored one, created two more and won a pair of penalties for the further goals in a delirious 5-3 defeat of Manchester United in September 2014, then did not net again until March 2015.

Team-mate David Nugent provided an obvious, easy comparison, the player too good for the second tier but not good enough for the top flight.

Nugent's 20 goals in 46 games in 2013-14 improved his Championship tally to 90 in 254. He had found the net only nine times across 64 Premier League appearances, though, and would add just five more from 29 matches for Leicester.

But where Nugent's 2014-15 season followed a familiar, underwhelming theme, Vardy improved drastically over the course of a relentless run-in.

Playing a vital role as seven wins from nine games lifted Leicester from the foot of the table, Vardy ended the season with five goals and eight assists. Three of his five strikes came from fast breaks, having been involved in 11 counter-attacks – the fifth-most of any Premier League player – as the Foxes found an effective way of playing.

Leicester had fewer fast breaks in 2015-16 (21) than the previous year (34) but still led the league in this regard and scored from six such counters. Four of those goals came from Vardy among a breakout 24 for the season.

Freed by a quick, direct set-up, Vardy ranked fourth in the league for shots (115), second for shots on target (53) and third for touches in the opposition box (221). The ultimate confidence player, Vardy scored in a record-breaking 11 consecutive matches.

The tireless forward maintained his nuisance factor, too, winning possession in the final third 33 times and earning seven penalties – both league highs.

The Leicester number nine took 20.87 per cent of his chances but only marginally outperformed his expected goals (xG) total, his 19 non-penalty goals coming from shots worth a top-ranked 18.34 xG.

Vardy has since become more clinical – peaking with 28.17 per cent shot conversion in 2017-18 – but has never again been so busy in the area.

MAHREZ'S GUILE

Anthony Knockaert also fell into that Nugent group, lasting a mere nine games at Leicester in the top flight having created 2.6 chances per 90 minutes in the first of his three Championship promotion campaigns.

Riyad Mahrez, signed in January 2014, was the Foxes' other star winger and also struggled in his debut Premier League season. Having been involved in seven goals in 19 Championship outings, he could only match that tally again across an entire year in the top division.

As with Vardy, though, Leicester's late-season resurgence allowed the Algeria international to carry momentum into the new campaign; he started the final four matches of 2014-15 and netted both goals in a win over Southampton.

And the improvement in Mahrez's play was even more pronounced.

There were two more goals against Sunderland on the opening day, among 13 by Christmas alongside seven assists. That pace slowed – he finished with 17 goals and 11 assists – but Mahrez trailed only Vardy for goal involvements.

Despite this, Mahrez was far from the most prolific creator. His 68 key passes ranked eighth but made up less than half of leader Mesut Ozil's output (146). Mahrez crafted high-quality openings, however, second only to Ozil (28) in creating 20 'big chances' – situations where Opta would reasonably expect a player to score.

This was all the more impressive as Mahrez was also required to provide an outlet for a side with the third-lowest average possession (42.4 per cent) in the division. Only Wilfried Zaha (274 to 255) attempted more dribbles, while nobody completed more (131).

Mahrez has never once attempted 100 dribbles in a season since joining Manchester City, but the close control and spellbinding skill that is merely another option at the Etihad Stadium then attracted defenders and opened space for sprinters Vardy, Marc Albrighton and Jeffrey Schlupp.

KANTE'S GRAFT

Gokhan Inler was presumed to be the replacement for Esteban Cambiasso, who had led Leicester's rescue act from midfield with five goals – as many as Vardy – at the age of 34.

Inler started only three games but for good reason. Fellow new signing N'Golo Kante was perhaps the biggest game-changer for the Foxes. Opponents might have dominated possession but they could never rest.

Kante, at Caen, had led Ligue 1 midfielders in tackles (178), tackles won (146) and interceptions (110) and ranked second for recoveries (369) in 2014-15.

The transition to the Premier League was seamless. He was first again for tackles (175), tackles won (125) and interceptions (156), although he fell to third in terms of recoveries (326). The man in second was Leicester team-mate Danny Drinkwater.

What the Foxes lacked without the experience of Cambiasso, Kante's bite more than made up for.

The midfielder became more careful in possession following his move, too, losing the ball with just 18.1 per cent of his touches, the lowest rate of any Leicester player with 1,000 touches or more and an improvement on his 23.4 per cent with Caen.

Even then, it was not as straightforward as a single signing fixing every issue. Idrissa Gueye, another Ligue 1 recruit, ranked second in tackles, tackles won and interceptions and first in recoveries yet was relegated with Aston Villa.

But Kante's infectious tenacity set the standard at the King Power Stadium and only Tottenham blocked a greater share of their opponents' shots (32.7 per cent) than Leicester (30.6), contributing to a conversion rate of just 6.9 per cent.

When Kante then left for Chelsea at the end of 2015-16, struggling Leicester waited only until January before signing another tough tackler in Wilfred Ndidi, one of just two players – the other being Gueye – to have since registered 130 or more tackles in a single Premier League season (each doing so twice).

In that time, nobody has been able to match Kante's title-winning mark.

Thomas Tuchel accepted there is a "race" for Erling Haaland and talked up the "world-class" talents of Sergio Aguero but was reticent to talk about Chelsea's reported interest in the star duo.

Borussia Dortmund striker Haaland is a man in demand in the close-season transfer window, with his father Alf Inge and representative Mino Raiola said to have met with both Barcelona and Real Madrid this week.

Talks are also said to be taking place with the Blues, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United, with Haaland – who has 49 goals in as many games for Dortmund – seemingly set for a new venture.

Chelsea boss Tuchel was asked about their own pursuit at a pre-match conference for Chelsea's Premier League clash against West Brom this weekend.

"I will not answer that out of respect for the player and Borussia Dortmund," Tuchel said. 

"There is big news around him and his agent. It seems like they are creating a race for the player and I will fully accept he is a player for Borussia Dortmund, a promising player of course.

"But he isn't our player and is not in our squad. So, we will not comment on anything else regarding Haaland."

A new striker is thought to be high on Chelsea's list of priorities and City legend Aguero has also been linked with a switch to Stamford Bridge.

Aguero will depart the Etihad Stadium at the end of the campaign, after a decade of service during which time he has become the club's all-time leading scorer.

"You can ask but it's the same answer as Haaland. We have full respect for Manchester City and Sergio Aguero, who is a big player for them," Tuchel added.

"There is no words needed for me about the achievements of this guy, he is a world-class player.

"But we have three competitions in which we are in with Manchester City so I will not speak about their player."

Chelsea's links to strikers comes amid a poor run of goalscoring form from Timo Werner, a big-money recruit from RB Leipzig.

Werner has just five Premier League goals this term, while he has not scored since the 2-0 win over Newcastle United on February 15.

His woes were highlighted by a poor miss in Germany's shock 2-1 defeat to North Macedonia this week but Tuchel insists Werner is still contributing to the Blues' cause.

"It was a bad pass from Ilkay Gundogan is how I see it! I'm only joking. He missed that chance and everybody is passionate to talk about it, which is a bit annoying," Tuchel said.

"It's easy at the moment to point the finger at Timo, which I can't understand. I am happy he is back here.

"To look at it honestly, he is in a moment where he lacks confidence and things aren't too easy. The goals are not working out as usual but he works out for us.

"He still scores for us, still assists for us, still wins penalties. If this is the most critical point of his career you can say it's still pretty impressive so far.

"Timo has scored since he was five years old and he never stopped. So he can trust his brain and body, it will come back. That's easier said than done.

"Yesterday I sent him in from training because he wanted to do extra finishing with us. But I sent him in because it will come. The goals will come.

"Of course, he needs to do something and the best thing to do is to work hard. Work hard against the ball, make runs, don't hesitate, be fearless, don't overthink it.

"That's easy for me to say but it's the challenge right now. Timo will start tomorrow and there we go."

While Werner will be involved, influential midfielder N'Golo Kante is out after injuring his hamstring while away with France.

Tuchel also expects Kante to sit out Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final first-leg tie against Porto, in which they are the designated away side for a match taking place in Seville.

"Yes, probably [he will miss Porto]," Tuchel said. "He is doing individual training. He can't be with the squad.

"Then we have just three days to prepare. We have a muscle injury, as we communicated with the national team. So my realistic approach is to think about Porto, maybe the second game against Porto."

N'Golo Kante is to return to Chelsea on Friday after being ruled out of France's World Cup qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Bosnia-Herzegovina with a hamstring injury.

The 29-year-old played the full 90 minutes of Les Bleus 1-1 draw with Ukraine in their opening Group D match at the Stade de France on Wednesday.

However, Kante sustained a minor injury late on in the game and will now be assessed by Chelsea, who have key fixtures to come in three competitions in April.

A statement on the French Football Federation website on Thursday read: "The Chelsea midfielder felt a pain in the hamstrings of the left thigh at the very end of the match against Ukraine.

"He had clinical and radiological examinations on Thursday, which revealed a small lesion.

"In consultation with Doctor Franck Le Gall, national coach Didier Deschamps has decided to put N'Golo Kante back at the disposal of his club on Friday."

Deschamps has opted against calling up a midfield replacement for Kante ahead of the games with Kazakhstan on Sunday and Bosnia-Herzegovina three days later.

Chelsea face West Brom in the Premier League on April 3, before taking on Porto in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on April 7.

Thomas Tuchel's men also have an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City in three weeks' time.

Kante has been used 36 times in all competition by Chelsea this season and was hailed as "world class" by Tuchel earlier this month following a string of impressive displays.

Only two midfielders to have played at least 10 Premier League games this term have made more interceptions per 90 minutes than Kante's 2.56 - Burnley's Josh Brownhill (2.59) and Wilfried Ndidi of Leicester City (2.76).

No other Chelsea regular averages more than two interceptions per game in the competition, Jorginho being next highest with 1.81.

Kante also ranks highly for recoveries, averaging 8.23 per 90 minutes, though that is still some way behind Ndidi's 9.37.

Thomas Tuchel described N'Golo Kante as "a big gift" after the France international played a starring role in Chelsea's Champions League victory over Atletico Madrid.

Kante was instrumental in midfield as goals from Hakim Ziyech and Emerson earned Chelsea a 2-0 second-leg win at Stamford Bridge to go through to the quarter-finals 3-0 on aggregate, and Tuchel acknowledged the 29-year-old's importance to his team.

Kante's passing accuracy of 87.7 per cent and his tireless energy throughout the game were catalysts for a performance that made the leaders of LaLiga look out of their depth.

Tuchel hailed Kante's contribution, telling reporters: "I never know the age of my players, I just judge from performance. You play with N'Golo Kante and you always have more.

"His intensity and volume are outstanding. It is a pleasure to be coach of him. He is a big gift for me, so humble, such a big helper on the pitch.

"He and Mateo Kovacic needed to step up today, we rely on them, and they took the weight on their shoulders and did a fantastic job."

Chelsea are unbeaten in 14 games in all competitions, and 13 since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as head coach on January 26.

The Blues are competing on three fronts as they sit fourth in the Premier League, prepare for an FA Cup quarter-final against Sheffield United on Sunday, and brace themselves for the Champions League quarter-final draw on Friday.

Tuchel took a moment to reflect on a highly impressive start to his tenure, saying: "From the very first moment I felt like a part of a family, of a well-structured club.

"Everybody in this club thinks about football. I feel like a part of it. Part of the team.

"The input of the players and their approach to the game and to training is outstanding - it's what the Premier League demands.

"From here we go and we take it step-by-step and we encourage them. We have so many good habits, and our attitude to training and games is amazing.

"Our job is to play our part, my job to play my part, this is what it is all about."

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