When Eden Hazard left Chelsea for Stamford Bridge last summer, there was an immediate assumption from some quarters that N’Golo Kante would become a crutch for Frank Lampard’s young team.
Kante was the squad’s only certified world-class star, their one player who on top form would walk into any other club side. Surrounded by raw talent, his experience would be leaned on like never before.
It’s funny how quickly things can change.
When the 28-year-old hobbled off after 12 minutes in last Monday’s defeat to Manchester United – the right abductor injury his fourth ailment of a campaign that has also seen knee, hamstring and ankle issues – there was some disappointment but it was hardly a knockout blow.
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As this season progresses to the business end and the Frenchman faces another spell on the sidelines, the body of evidence is growing that Chelsea’s midfield is actually functioning better in his absence.
And much of that comes down to the development of Mateo Kovacic.
The Croatian was equivocal when asked if Lampard is making him a better player on the eve of tonight’s Champions League round of 16 first leg against Bayern Munich at the Bridge but he has also promised to contribute more.
“I don’t know, I think I am having a good season under him but I think I can do even more,” Kovacic said. “I have good communication with him. I am working on the bad sides of my game. I am talking to him a lot and I am analysing my game.
“I think I am becoming a better player but it is normal because I am getting more mature. I am a good age so I feel good.”
At 25 he is entering the peak of his powers while the feeling grows that Kante, three and a bit years older, may have already hit his and was physically overloaded by Maurizio Sarri last season.
By most statistical measures Kovacic’s production has risen significantly compared to…