N'Golo Kante is Chelsea's small man for the big occasion, and they need him more than ever

Can Chelsea shock Real Madrid in the Champions League? (1:05)

Ian Darke debates whether Frank Lampard can inspire Chelsea to advance past Real Madrid in the Champions League. (1:05)

There was a moment early in the second half of Chelsea's 0-0 draw with Liverpool last week that encapsulated the cohesive influence of midfielder N'Golo Kante.

In the midst of an attack, forward Kai Havertz miscontrolled a promising pass from Joao Felix. The breakaway should have been over, another opening spurned to add to the catalogue of errors that had cost head coach Graham Potter his job. But out of nowhere, in a blur, Kante suddenly appeared to keep the foray alive, winning a tackle with Ibrahima Konate before steering a deft pass into Mateo Kovacic's path.

Presented with a clear sight of goal, Kovacic steadied himself, took aim and blazed his shot over the crossbar to the groans of a Stamford Bridge crowd all too familiar with Chelsea's profligacy in front of goal. The ball did not end up in the net, but Kante's ability to rescue a lost cause remains unrivalled.

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The France international is one of football's ultimate problem solvers: a World Cup winner with an innate ability to anticipate danger and also knit fragmented elements of a team together. He is as relentless as he is humble, a diligent, highly intelligent footballer utterly unfazed by the magnitude of any occasion.

That last characteristic is just as well because trying to bind this current incarnation of Chelsea together might be the toughest task the 32-year-old has faced yet. It feels an unfair burden to place on anyone returning from a seven-month injury layoff but Kante is now the man charged with saving the Blues' season.

Perhaps it is both testament to his individual quality and the club's wider malaise that he was Chelsea's best player against Liverpool despite such a long spell out following hamstring surgery.

Caretaker manager Frank Lampard did not risk Kante in Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers in preparation for Wednesday's Champions League quarterfinal first leg at Real Madrid, mindful of the physical overload that three games in eight days would create. Last weekend's dreadful performance at Molineux cannot solely be attributed to the Frenchman's absence, but it is almost certain Chelsea would not have been as poor had Kante been on the field.

And so Lampard will be relying heavily on Kante defying convention and logic to make the Blues competitive at the home of the European champions, hoping he can perform similar heroics to 2021, when Chelsea knocked out Real Madrid at the semifinal stage en route to beating Manchester City in the final. Kante won UEFA's Man of the Match award in that final and also both legs against Real. His fourth such award of the knockout stages that year came in Chelsea's round of 16, second-leg win over Atletico Madrid. Kante was later named UEFA Midfielder of the Year, included in the FIFA FIFPro Men's World XI and shortlisted for the Ballon d'Or that year.

He is the small man for the big occasion.

A glut of football luminaries have long queued up to lavish praise on a player they dream about having in their ranks. Arsene Wenger repeatedly rued missing out on signing Kante for Arsenal in 2016, the summer after he won the Premier League title with Leicester City. Then-Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri said "he must have a pack full of batteries hidden in his shorts." Former Gunners striker Thierry Henry once said he saw Kante during a visit to Chelsea's Cobham training ground and "poked him in the chest to check if he was real."

Successive Chelsea managers have rued Kante's more recent injury problems. Potter was able to use Kante once, for 33 minutes, as a substitute against Aston Villa in his final match in charge.

Thomas Tuchel once claimed Kante should be considered more of a Chelsea legend than goal-scoring hero Didier Drogba as "he is even more important for a team because a guy like N'Golo, with the mentality of a helper, a water carrier, this makes the difference and big teams and successful teams need this."

The problem is Chelsea resemble a colander these days and it is a mammoth ask for Kante, even with his prodigious talent, to fill all the gaps. Furthermore, a chequered recent injury record inevitably raises questions over just how much longer Kante can produce these all-action displays.

It is a debate Chelsea have had internally, evidenced by the fact Kante is out of contract this summer. Talks have been held over a new multi-year deal with a positive outcome possible -- some say probable -- but in previous seasons it would been considered a criminal act to allow Kante to enter the final three months of his contract without an agreement.

During his first three seasons in west London, Kante started at least 34 Premier League games in each campaign. Since 2019-20, he has not managed more than 24 starts in the league as a series of groin, hamstring and muscular problems -- while also twice contracting Covid-19 -- have limited his availability.

There is no guarantee that a player in his early-30s, whose game is built as much on a tireless energy as tactical acumen, will consistently return to performing at the highest level after such a lengthy spell out injured.

Kante's past three Chelsea appearances have come under three different managers: Tuchel in August's draw with Tottenham Hotspur, Potter in April's loss to Aston Villa, and Bruno Saltor in last week's stalemate against Liverpool. Wednesday night could make it four from four.

In Europe, though, he has so often delivered. Kante was central to Chelsea's 2021 triumph. He overcame an injury sustained in the build-up to the 2019 Europa League final against Arsenal to dominate the Gunners during a 4-1 win in Baku. On Tuesday night, in a news conference at the Santiago Bernabeu, Lampard cited a third example from his first spell in charge: a penalty shootout defeat to Liverpool in the 2019 UEFA Super Cup.

"N'Golo is a special player," he said. "In terms of coming back and playing at a really high level, I have witnessed him do it. He did it for me in the Super Cup against Liverpool for me a few years ago.

"He passed a fitness test, hadn't trained in a long time and was the best player on the pitch for 120 minutes. I think he has the capacity to do it because he's a special player.

"Hopefully he can do that because he's that high level a player, and when we miss him as a club, we miss him because of how good he is. It's a positive that he's back."

Kante has long been evergreen, everywhere. Chelsea need him at that level more than ever.