Middlesbrough head coach Steve Agnew has saluted Chelsea enforcer N’Golo Kante as he attempts to delay his march towards a second successive Premier League winners’ medal.
The 26-year-old France international drove former club Leicester to a shock title triumph last season and is doing much the same again at Stamford Bridge this time around – following his big money summer switch – to leave the club on the brink of glory.
Relegation-threatened Boro will stand in his way on Monday evening when they head for the capital knowing anything less than victory could prove fatal to their lingering survival hopes, and Agnew is only too aware of what Kante can do to opposition teams.
He said: “He’s been absolutely top-class. He’s the one player who knits it all together – he did it for Leicester last season.
“Any successful team, it’s all about balance, whether it’s physical attributes of quick players and big players, or whether it’s technical players, or whether it’s the workman-like player who really does hold the team together.
“He’s a player who I think has been probably as good as anybody throughout the season. He’s had an excellent season – well, he’s had two seasons where he has been different class.”
Boro will run out having been buoyed by a return of four points from their last two games, a 1-0 victory over derby rivals Sunderland and a 2-2 draw with Manchester City, who rode their luck as they escaped from the Riverside Stadium with something to show for their efforts last Sunday.
The win against the Black Cats was their first in the league since December 17 and – although the improvement may have come a few weeks too late – Agnew has been hugely encouraged by what he has seen with midfielder Marten de Roon in particular helping to provide fresh impetus.
It was De Roon, a Â£12million summer signing from Atalanta, who scored the only goal against Sunderland and Agnew has been delighted with his contribution.
He said: “He has come from Italy, which is slightly different in terms of the style of play, a little bit more defensive, and we have changed his position.
“He’s been more of an attacking midfield player this season in many of the games he’s played and he’s a real threat, as you have seen with the number of goals he has scored in the Premier League this season.
“He’s been very good, excellent. It’s hard to single out players – obviously Marten has scored a few goals, so has Alvaro (Negredo), but I think the contribution throughout the squad has been terrific.
“They didn’t quite get the rewards in terms of the win against Manchester City, but playing against a top team and actually having to try to get back-to-back wins in the Premier League is something we were very, very close to and haven’t achieved all season.”