N'Golo Kante has been one of the standout stars of the 2018 World Cup
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The joke between some of the French players is that N'Golo Kante didn't fly back to Moscow with the rest of the team after Friday's quarterfinal win against Uruguay in Nizhny Novgorod. No: he ran back instead!
The midfielder has been unstoppable so far during this World Cup. He can't stop running, tackling, getting balls back or intercepting opposing passes. France's opponents haven't been able to stop his influence on the games, either.
Paul Pogba calls him the man with 15 lungs. Lucas Hernandez says that even when you don't see him anymore, he reappears somewhere out of the blue to win the ball back. The numbers back up what everyone can see while watching France's matches.
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Simply put, Kante is everywhere. Since the beginning of the competition, only Luka Modric has recovered the ball more than him (42 times vs. 40), only Roman Zobnin has made more interceptions (20 vs. 17) and only Javier Aquino, Wilmer Barrios (both 11) and Casemiro (10) have made more tackles than him (nine).
Kante might be one of the smallest players in Russia (at 5-foot-6) but he has been immense this summer. It feels like France have been playing with a 12th player, with Kante both on the right and the left of Paul Pogba in central midfield.
Eden Hazard, who has played with him for the past two seasons at Chelsea and who will face him on Tuesday, has also been impressed. "He is the best player in the world in his position. When he is at his best, you have a 95 percent chance of winning the game," said the Belgian captain to beIN Sports on Sunday.
The most impressive thing about "NG" (his English-pronounced nickname), is that every time there is a new, bigger and tougher challenge ahead in his career, he rises to it and steps up a gear or two.
When Kante left Suresnes, the tiny club near Paris where he was playing in the French eighth division, to go to Boulogne in the third tier only a few years ago, he ended up being named the league's best player. Then in Ligue 2 in Caen, he was in the team of the season and it was the same story in Ligue 1 the following year, still with Caen.
People then said Kante would not succeed in the Premier League at Leicester, but he was instrumental in guiding them to a magnificent league title. And another one with Chelsea. Next came the Champions League, in which he'd never played before. Kante mastered it. Now, he is the king of the World Cup and a strong contender for best player of the tournament. He might not win it, but not many players have had more impact than him on their country's performances. His incredible work rate is giving more freedom to Kylian Mbappe on his right and Pogba on his left.
Tactically, the work Kante's been doing with Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte has taken him to another level. He is still running as much as when he was in Caen but with far more efficiency. He got stronger physically as well and even with the ball, the improvement has been huge. Didier Deschamps, who has a special relationship with him as a former No. 6 himself, has been very important in his development too.
Kante has become a better version of Claude Makelele. His rise has been incredible and impressive, just like his performances at this tournament. Still only 27, the sky is the limit, but the success is not changing him.
Kante is discovering the World Cup and taking everything in. He still goes everywhere with a ruck sack almost bigger than him. He is still one of the quietest in the France dressing room. He listens and smiles but doesn't say much; he doesn't shout or dance like some others. At least he's improving at the card games he plays with Florian Thauvin, Thomas Lemar and Nabil Fekir.
Without Kante, France would surely not still be in this World Cup. He has never been as strong, and if Eden Hazard is right, Les Bleus have a 95 percent chance to win the tournament.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.