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Why N’Golo Kante will be key in new-look Chelsea’s quest for success

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N'Golo Kante completed his $40 million move to Chelsea over the weekend and the Blues’ new manager Antonio Conte couldn’t be happier.

The Italian manager has made the French international midfield his second signing since arriving at Stamford Bridge — towering Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi was his first — and Kante will become an integral part of Conte’s new-look Chelsea from the get-go.

[ MORE: UEFA releases top player list ]  

At 25 years old Kante is in his prime and is ready to kick on to the next level after leading Leicester to an incredible Premier League title win last season.

Yes, Jamie Vardy scored the goals and Riyad Mahrez often created them but who was the man who won the ball back and then used it so efficiently so the Foxes could attack in the first place?

Ask any Leicester fan, or anybody who watched them closely, and they’ll tell you Kante was the heartbeat of Leicester last season.

[ MORE: Zlatan – “I’ll be God in Manchester” ]  

Conte knows it too and is ready to build his team around the late-blooming defensive midfielder who was playing in the French lower tiers until two seasons ago.

Speaking after Chelsea’s opening preseason friendly on Saturday, a 2-0 loss to Rapid Vienna, the former Italian national team manager spoke glowingly about Kante’s arrival at Stamford Bridge.

“I want to say Kante was a target and for this reason I’m very happy the club bought the player. He’s a good player. He has good technique, fantastic stamina and I like this type of player. If you want to win a team needs this type of player – Kante, Matic and Mikel – that work hard for the team,” Conte said. “We identified him, me and the club together, and I think Kante can give a lot to Chelsea, to enforce a zone which is very important if we want to play with two central midfielders. He showed last season he’s able to play with another midfielder.

“I think with this player we’ve reinforced the squad. All together we are working to improve the squad. We know we have to but we prefer to wait and go for our targets, rather than go with emotion and take the players who don’t adapt to our idea of football.”

Technical director Michael Emenalo has also talked about how Kante is a perfect fit for Conte’s philosophies and the Blues now seem to have the balance in their midfield correct with Kante slotting perfectly into their side.

Kante can play alongside a more destructive player and be the driving force, a la Danny Drinwkater, but is also a player who will run forwards and launch counters without being too creative or scoring goals or adding assists. He just does all of the simple things ridiculously well.

Chelsea have so many attacking talents who can do the rest ridiculously well. If Kante supplied a seemingly never-ending stream of balls to Vardy and Mahrez last season, think of what kind of service he can give Eden Hazard, Willian, Diego Costa and Batshuayi and what kind of damage they can do.

Just like Claude Makelele did in the past for Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and others to flourish, Kante will do the dirty work in midfield to intercept, tackle and set Chelsea on their way. True, he is more dynamic than Makelele was but the duo both play the same vitally important role, especially with so many mercurial talents at Conte’s disposal in his debut season managing in England.

Kante straightaway adds much-needed balance to this Chelsea midfield.

The only issue here is, where does Cesc Fabregas fit in? It seems like his days as a true two-way midfield may be over under Conte, a manager who prefers players in the engine room who can win the ball back quickly and shield the defensive unit. It is fitting he mentioned Kante, John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic in his comments as he clearly sees two of those three playing alongside each other at the start of the season. Fabregas will be pushed higher up the pitch and it is clear the Blues’ midfield now belongs to Kante.

Chelsea will no longer be a talented team of individuals who roll over and surrender just as they did far too easily for much of last season. Conte, and most importantly Kante, will add steel, drive and power to their core.

The Blues have picked up arguably the most influential central midfielder in Europe over the past 12 months and he will be key to their future success as a new era arrives in west London.

Fernandez scores twice as Portland wins thriller in Seattle (video)

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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The game in 200 words (or less): Brian Fernandez has made the most of his first two-plus months in MLS, undoubtedly capped off by a star’s performance in his Timbers-Sounders rivalry debut on Sunday. The Argentine scored both of Portland’s goals in a 2-1 victory at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, all while managing to annoy anyone and everyone in Rave Green with his pest-like antics.

Fernandez’s first came after just 20 minutes. His second came barely 20 seconds after Raul Ruidiaz drew Seattle level in the second half. With the result, Portland climbs to within two points of the Western Conference’s seventh and final playoff place. Seattle, meanwhile, misses out on a chance to leapfrog LA Galaxy for second.

[ MORE: Pity proves his point as Atlanta tops DCU late (video) ]

Three moments that mattered

20′ — Fernandez slams home after Moreira smashes the crossbar — Jorge Moreira’s initial blast deserved to hit the back of the net, but he’ll surely settle for Fernandez cleaning up the mess and bagging the opener.

50′ — Ruidiaz passes into an empty net for 1-1 — Steve Clark was trying to… hmm, you know what? Not really sure.

51′ — Fernandez answers right back and it’s 2-1 — It was the deftest of touches, but it’s all that was required seconds after Portland conceded down the other end of the field.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Brian Fernandez

Goalscorers: Fernandez (20′, 51′), Ruidiaz (50′)

Red Bulls escape Orlando with three points (video)

AP Photo/John Raoux
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The game in 200 words (or less): The New York Red Bulls needed a little help from the woodwork to escape Orlando with a victory on Sunday, and they got it — not once, not twice, but three times in the second half. After scoring the game’s only goal just past the half-hour mark, Luis Robles and Co., held on for dear life as Orlando City SC attacked with wave after wave of pressure. Robles made four saves, while the posts and crossbar made three more for him. Brian White scored the goal, assisted by Kaku, his seventh of the season. The victory sees the Red Bulls climb past New York City FC for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, now just a point back of D.C. United in third and two back of Atlanta United in second.

[ MORE: Pity proves his point as Atlanta tops DCU late (video) ]

Three moments that mattered

32′ — White finishes Kaku’s curling ball — Brian Rowe is unlucky not to make the save, but it would have been a grave crime against brilliance for this ball from Kaku not to result in a goal.

60′ — Ascues hits the crossbar — Woodwork.

77′ — Kljestan smashes the post — Woodwork again. The follow-up accidentally hits Robles as he’s lying on the ground.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Luis Robles/posts and crossbar

Goalscorers: White (32′)

Sevilla score late winner to beat Liverpool in Fenway friendly

AP Photo/Mary Schwalm
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BOSTON (AP) Alejandro Pozo scored in the 90th minute on an assist from Munir El Haddadi to give hard-fighting Sevilla a victory over crowd favorite Liverpool at Fenway Park on Sunday in a game that was friendly in name only.

The Spanish side finished with 10 players after Gnagnon Joris violently kicked the legs out from under Liverpool midfielder Yasser Larouci in the 76th minute; he crashed to the turf, remained down for several minutes and was taken off on a stretcher.

Despite temperatures in the mid-90s, nearly the entire 37,000-seat ballpark was full for the friendly, with most of them dressed in red to support Liverpool. The Champions League winners and the Boston Red Sox, who make their home at Fenway, are both owned by groups led by financier John Henry.

The field was laid out from the third-base side to right field, with the home team bullpen removed to make room. The teams had their benches in front of the iconic Green Monster, the 37-foot wall in left field. Much of the baseball diamond itself was covered with sod; the pitcher’s mound was sawed apart and shoveled off after the Red Sox finished their homestand on Sunday.

After the U.S. national anthem, the fans serenaded the Reds with the traditional “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

To deal with the heat, the game was stopped once each half to give the players a chance to hydrate; the Fenway grounds crew also came out with hoses to wet down the infield, and sprinklers took care of the outfield.

The fans didn’t get to see many of their favorites, with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino all resting from international tournaments, along with goalkeeper Alisson. With Liverpool’s top four goalkeepers unavailable, Andy Longergan, who spent the last season at Middlesbrough, got the start in goal.

Liverpool dominated early, but it was Sevilla that scored first when a ball deflected in the penalty area to Nolito, who made it 1-0 in the 37th minute. Divock Origi tied it in the 44th minute when a header deflected to him at the post and he buried it.

The players on the field – at least those in Sevilla’s white kits – didn’t seem to be persuaded that the game was only an exhibition. A tough tackle in the 12th minute resulted in a foul on Ever Banega, and it was upgraded to a yellow card when he slammed the ball into the ground in protest.

Liverpool midfielder Harry Wilson left just before the half after apparently getting poked in the eye. But that was nothing compared to the straight red card given to Joris. He seemed to be the only person in the stadium who disagreed with the call, arguing with the referee while Larouci was attended to.

The teams substituted liberally at halftime, with every Liverpool player except Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced by a substitute. Four Sevilla players stayed in to start the second half.

Red-hot Revs beat FC Cincy, make it 10 games unbeaten (video)

AP Photo/Steven Senne
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The game in 200 words (or less): Statistically speaking, no other team even comes close to rivaling the New England Revolution as the hottest team in MLS. With a 2-0 road victory over expansion side FC Cincinnati on Sunday, Bruce Arena’s side hasn’t lost in 10 games (nine of which have been played since he was named head coach) and now sits above the playoff cut line in the Eastern Conference. At present, two points separate them and fourth-place New York City FC. Carles Gil has been a revelation as a new signing last winter, and Arena has gotten so much more out of the rest of the remaining roster than Brad Friedel did during his 15 months in charge. Gil scored what turned out to be the early winner on Sunday, followed by an insurance goal (set up by Gil) from Antonio Delamea early in the second half. It was as routine as a road victory can be in MLS, which is as much of an indictment of Cincinnati as it is a compliment to the Revs.

[ MORE: Pity proves his point as Atlanta tops DCU late (video) ]

Two moments that mattered

9′ — Gil cleans up a mess and makes it 1-0 — Sometimes, if not most of the time, Cincinnati defends exactly how you would expect an expansion team to defend.

55′ — Delamea heads home for 2-0 — Headed goals don’t come much easier, or less contested, than this one.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Carles Gil

Goalscorers: Gil (9′), Delamea (55′)