N'Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko dream midfield pairing for Chelsea
There was an entertaining joke doing the rounds last season that Leicester City bought the Premier League title for €5.6 million and sold it to Chelsea for €32m. The subject of the wisecrack was the Blues midfield dynamo N'Golo Kante, whose departure from the King Power Stadium and arrival at Stamford Bridge proved pivotal in the fortunes of both clubs.
Leicester's star waned markedly enough for manager Claudio Ranieri -- who had steered the Foxes to unlikely glory -- to be sacked, while Chelsea, under the guidance of Antonio Conte, were transformed from also-rans to champions.
Of course Conte's football philosophy and template for playing the game had a huge part to play in the Blues' resurrection, but without Kante it might not have been quite so easy. The France international's contribution to Chelsea's cause was recognised by the Professional Footballers Association and Football Writers Association, who both named him player of the year. There have been plenty more awards for the 26-year-old, who looks primed for further success at the Bridge, where he can look forward now to his first taste of Champions League football.
To mount a credible challenge in Europe and defend their league title, Chelsea need top-drawer reinforcements of Kante's calibre, and there is one player being strongly linked with a move to SW6 who fits the bill perfectly -- Tiemoue Bakayoko of Monaco.
Defensive midfielder Bakayoko had a stellar season at the Stade Louis II as Monaco halted Paris Saint-Germain's four-year dominance of French football by winning the Ligue 1 title. Leonardo Jardim's side also surged to the semifinals of the Champions League, knocking out Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City en route. Bakayoko dominated midfield against Spurs and headed the decisive goal when Monaco beat Manchester City 3-1 to overturn a 5-3 first-leg deficit in the round of 16.
Like Kante, Bakayoko, 22, learned his trade playing with one of France's less fashionable teams, Rennes. A €7m move to Monaco in August 2014 promised much but initially didn't deliver, and it was only when former Chelsea defensive midfield legend Claude Makelele spent a year at the Monaco club as technical director that Bakayoko's career began to flourish.
A supreme hard-running athlete, Bakayoko has all the attributes required to make it in the Premier League. His ability to read the game, be strong in the tackle, intercept and play the ball out with his feet would make him the perfect midfield foil for Kante at Chelsea, allowing his countryman the opportunity to roam forward more, something which worked well on the rare occasions Conte was able to structure his lineup to facilitate it.
Last season, Nemanja Matic shaded the duel with Cesc Fabregas to partner Kante in Chelsea's midfield engine room, but it was clear that Conte wasn't totally convinced by either player's capabilities to fulfill the role in the way that Bakayoko could.
France's 1998 World Cup-winning defender Marcel Desailly, who also starred for Chelsea, joked last season on Twitter that 71 percent of the earth was covered by water, the rest by N'Golo Kante. Bakayoko has the same indefatigable qualities as Kante. As a duo, this midfield combination is utterly compelling and has a fantasy football aspect to it that won't be lost on Blues owner Roman Abramovich, who will already have his eyes trained once more on club football's greatest prize.
If Abramovich's cabal of advisers can get a deal for Bakayoko done early in the summer transfer window, it would enable Conte to get a full preseason with the player and hone his tactical plans for the forthcoming campaign.
The midfielder won't come cheap, but Chelsea won't be put off by a price tag likely to be in excess of €35 million. Manchester United have long been rumoured to be interested in signing Bakayoko, but manager Jose Mourinho could turn his attention to Matic, whom he brought back to Stamford Bridge in his second spell as manager, should he be thwarted in his attempt to sign the player. With academy graduate Nathaniel Chalobah growing in stature, the Serbia international could be viewed as surplus to requirements by Conte should Chelsea secure Bakayoko's services.
A move to Old Trafford for Matic would certainly raise some questions among Blues supporters about strengthening a rival squad, but these would soon be quelled when Bakayoko's qualities become fully apparent. Last summer Man United smashed the world transfer record to sign Paul Pogba, but it was Kante at €32m who proved to be the better value acquisition by far.
At €35m, Bakayoko could prove to be another shrewd piece of business by Chelsea as Abramovich's insatiable quest for silverware continues.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco