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N’Golo Kante should be a Ballon d’Or finalist

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Over the last two seasons, no player has been more important to his team’s title runs than N'Golo Kante.

That’s especially true considering the soon-to-be 26-year-old midfielder has done it with two teams: 2015-16 Premier League champions Leicester City and current leaders Chelsea.

[ MORE: West Ham 1-2 Chelsea | 3 things ]

The Blues lead the table by 10 points with 11 matches to play, a figure that could shrink to eight once Manchester City plays its match-in-hand on Wednesday.

Chelsea still plays Man City on April 5, so the title race isn’t completely dusted, but it’s difficult to imagine a relatively healthy Blues side doing anything but lifting the trophy come May.

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The only guy on Chelsea’s side who did that last year was Kante.

In fact, the diminutive destroyer has lost a total of six league matches as a starter dating back to the start of last season. He boasts a record of 40W-13D-6L between the two sides, and that’s without mentioning that France is unbeaten with him in the lineup since he broke into the side last March (They’re only loss was the EURO 2016 final against Portugal, in which he inexplicably didn’t make the XI).

[ MORE: JPW’s take from London Stadium ]

Kante was at it again on Monday, disrupting West Ham attacks like a chessmaster. The Frenchman was several steps ahead of anything the Irons tried, and it’s a marvel to watch his decision-making in darting to the right spot to kickstart Chelsea’s opener. If we had slow-mo, we’d do it, but check out how quickly he figures out where the ball is going before springing the counter attack with an interception and pass.

Eden Hazard‘s work to score the goal understandably gets the gloss here, and Kante’s far from alien to that phenomenon. Kante should’ve been the Player of the Year in the Premier League last season, and that went to then-teammate Riyad Mahrez.

Heck, he probably should’ve been a Ballon d’Or finalist. France teammate Antoine Griezmann joined Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the list. It’s hard to gripe with that trio, excepting they all play in the same league and all have better teammates to pick up the slack in an absence.

Not to mention, with apologies to Caen, he essentially came out of nowhere to do it. Even his fee when sold to Chelsea was understated; Reportedly maxing out at $39 million, Kante was less expensive than Chelsea teammates David Luiz and Michy Batshuayi, as well as at least six other PL buys (Paul Pogba, John Stones, Leroy Sane, Shkrodan Mustafi, Sadio Mane, Granit Xhaka).

Antonio Conte has done a marvelous job directing traffic as Chelsea boss, and this is a club that won the PL title two years ago. Luiz has returned to Stamford Bridge in spectacular fashion and deserves a post of his own, but there’s a good argument to be made that Kante trumps both newcomers as the most influential part of Chelsea’s rebound (though the answer is more likely 1- Conte 2- Kante 3-Luiz. There’s also little as fun as Conte-Kante).

It would be a shame if Kante failed to get a look at the Ballon d’Or in a year without a major European international tournament, but there’s a chance he gets overlooked due to Chelsea’s lack of Champions League play. That’s tough; the little man from Paris is presently the most complete player in the game.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.