N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard will take each other on in the World Cup’s purest duel of two players at their best. The only thing that could make it better would be if the Chelsea men were meeting in the final.
The World Cup has provided many great clashes from the group stages to the semifinals. Some were between storied rivals, like Spain vs. Portugal, or a lovable newcomer against a historic powerhouse, like Iceland vs. Argentina.
Others featured players battling for the pinnacle of their profession. Belgium vs. Brazil featured two such match-ups, with Thibaut Courtois and Allison guarding their goals against Neymar and Eden Hazard.
However, the World Cup has yet to provide a true, pitch-level, eye-to-eye duel of individual talent and tactics.
Hazard and Neymar battled for bragging rights (and perhaps Ballon d’Or votes), but they did not challenge each other directly.
Courtois and Allison never came within 100 yards of each other. Cristiano Ronaldo single-handedly took the fight to Spain, who opposed him as a unit. But no one defender could match his prowess.
The semifinal between Belgium and France will change that. Eden Hazard, the man who can dribble past anybody, will have to get by his Chelsea teammate N’Golo Kante, the man who lets no one dribble past him.
The closest this World Cup has offered to Hazard vs. Kante came in the Round of 16 when France played Argentina. N’Golo Kante had the primary responsibility for shutting down Lionel Messi.
However, as this World Cup has shown, Messi is no longer at the peak of his talents. That still makes him better than all but a few footballers, but he is not the Messi he once was.
In terms of players at their peak, N’Golo Kante held the advantage.
Neither player has such an advantage in the intra-Chelsea clash. N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard are both at their absolute best in this tournament. Their teams have grown into the tournament, as well, making their skirmish one part of a broader, beautiful battle.
N’Golo Kante may be the only player in the world with the speed, intelligence, footwork, endurance and tenacity to counter each of those qualities in Eden Hazard.
Claudio Ranieri once said having N’Golo Kante on your team is like playing with an additional player. Most teams assign a minimum of two players to cover Eden Hazard, and even that can be laughably insufficient.
Whether defenders converge on Hazard as a group or try to defend in layered depth, Hazard ends up outside their clutches.
The only time he has ever faced a player like N’Golo Kante is when Chelsea played Leicester City in 2015/16.
These two players have never faced each other since becoming the generational talents they are now.
Chelsea has had the ridiculous good fortune of having them together for the last two seasons.
Now football fans have the ridiculous good fortune of watching them go toe-to-toe.