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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.

Follow Live: Chelsea, Swans, Cherries in FA Cup replays

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Chelsea, Swansea City, and Bournemouth look to avoid upsets in replays of their third round FA Cup matches.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

All three matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET

The Blues tangle with former Premier League peers Norwich City, this time at Stamford Bridge, in a bid to host a fourth round match with Newcastle United.

Antonio Conte‘s not messing around (too much) with the XI.

Swansea City and Wolves, meanwhile, are arguably battling for a bid in the fourth round, as a trip to Notts County is on the docket for the winner of Wednesday’s replay at the Liberty Stadium.

Bournemouth is at Wigan Athletic for a replay with the third-tier Latics, with the victor hosting West Ham United on Jan. 27.

Benevento captain Lucioni banned one year for doping

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ROME (AP) Benevento captain Fabio Lucioni has been banned one year for doping.

[ MORE: Plenty to prove for Big Sam ]

Italy’s national anti-doping organization made the decision Tuesday after the steroid clostebol was found in a sample taken after Benevento’s 1-0 loss to Torino in September.

Benevento team physician Walter Giorgione was banned for four years for administering the steroid to Lucioni in a spray.

Both Lucioni and Giorgione plan to appeal.

The 30-year-old Lucioni joined Benevento in 2014 and the defender helped the team move from the third division up into Serie A this season for the first time.

Benevento is last in Serie A with only two wins in 20 matches.

The ban is back-dated to October, meaning Lucioni can return early next season.

Everton completes move for Walcott: “I’m dead excited” (video)

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Everton continues to supply its managers with top-end talent, adding Theo Walcott to its expensive season of boys which includes Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney, Cenk Tosun, Jordan Pickford, and Michael Keane.

[ MORE: Plenty to prove for Big Sam ]

The deal is reported to be near $28 million for Walcott, who’s made only a half-dozen Premier League appearances this season but did nab three goals in five Europa League matches.

Walcott, 28, scored 108 goals in 397 appearances for the Gunners. His 19-goal campaign last season was his second-best — he scored 21 in 2012-13 — but Walcott dipped down Arsene Wenger‘s depth charge and is leaving to pursue regular football.

And his comments will be lapped up by the #WengerOut brigade at his now former club:

“The Club has won trophies but I want them to win trophies now. The manager is very hungry and it’s just what I need. I’ve had a couple of chats with him and straightaway I felt that hunger and that desire that he wanted from me. I need that and I wanted that

The move is another exciting one for Everton, which has underachieved under Ronald Koeman and now Sam Allardyce. And it’s another sale from Arsenal which gives pause: Are the underperforming Gunners going to regret the move?

In the 2005-06 season, Walcott made his Southampton debut in the Football League Championship at the age of 16, and moved to Arsenal the next season.

Walcott has eight goals in 47 caps for England, and won two FA Cups at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Montreal nabs Algerian DP ]

Here is a useful quote from Sam Allardyce:“His physical output is excellent, he would be one of our top players in that area as well, which will hopefully bring us a lot more excitement and more ability to get forward quicker and create.

And here is an utterly useless one: ““If you analyse his goal record, then we are looking at a player who contributes goals on a regular basis.”

You don’t say. To paraphrase: If you look at all his goals, he regularly scores goals. Here’s more from the player on his move.

Montreal to nab Algerian DP Taider from Bologna

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The loss of Swiss power Blerim Dzemaili is a big one for the Montreal Impact, but another World Cup player may be taking his place in Quebec.

[ MLS: Club-by-club SuperDraft needs ]

Tutto Bologna reports that Algerian playmaker Saphir Taider, 25, is set to sign with the Impact on a contract through 2020.

On loan to Montreal last season, Dzemaili went back to Bologna. Taider is coming back the other way and will reportedly be a Designated Player.

Taider isn’t as consistent a player as Dzemaili, but presents a skill set that should be a massive problem for MLS midfields.

He has 42 caps with five goals for Algeria, and was once property of Juventus. He spent parts of four seasons at Inter Milan, with loan stints back to Bologna, at Sassuolo, and a unremarkable time at Southampton.