Neil Humphreys: Kante can, Reds cannot
In-form Chelsea enforcer shows what Liverpool still lack
What a difference a month makes.
On Halloween, Chelsea suffered a Roman nightmare. They were stuffed 3-0 by AS Roma in the Champions League.
The English Premier League champions were in free-fall. Bets were placed on Blue manager Antonio Conte not surviving the season.
In reality, the Italian was waiting. He was yearning for the return of his enforcer, his magnum force or any other Dirty Harry movie title that seems to fit his blue-eyed boy.
N'Golo Kante has certainly made Conte's day.
Almost a month ago, Kante's absence in Rome underlined his value to Chelsea.
A couple of days ago, former Chelsea star Gus Poyet called him the greatest central midfielder in the world and, tomorrow morning (Singapore time), Kante will remind Liverpool of what they don't have.
There's a hole in Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp's bucket list, a Kante-shaped hole that undermines the German's counter-attacking philosophy and heaps pressure on jittery defenders forever auditioning for Bambi on Ice.
At Chelsea, Kante makes those around him look better. At Liverpool, Klopp's failure to mind the gap in central midfield makes his defenders look worse.
No two footballers are suffering more for their club's erratic transfer policy than Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren.
Lovren's errors against Tottenham last month were as costly as they were clumsy, but there were mitigating circumstances. The same goes for the hapless Moreno.
In Liverpool's circle of Friends, the left back has become Joey Tribbiani, a dopey punchline, the butt of every joke involving the Reds' defensive frailties.
Moreno endured an off-night of epic proportions in Sevilla in midweek. Liverpool were three goals to the good until a couple of Moreno mistakes allowed the Spanish side to pinch a 3-3 draw.
Klopp and company had to sign a left back and a centre back in previous transfer windows not only to address the existing limitations, but also because the German's system rises or falls with his fullbacks.
If they don't bomb forward, Liverpool's attacking quartet are left twiddling their thumbs. And when the wing-backs do take flight, they need protection, the kind that Conte had in his title-winning charge last season.
The Chelsea manager improvised with three centre backs and wing-backs on the halfway line because if they ever lost possession, they always had Kante.
At Anfield, Jordan Henderson doesn't defend his back four with the kind of consistency typically associated with holding midfielders on the continent.
In fairness, hardly anyone tracks backs, tackles and distributes with the extraordinary tenacity of Kante, not even at Chelsea.
While he was out injured, Conte rotated and changed formations, even using David Luiz in midfield, which led to a 3-3 home draw against Roma.
But Conte couldn't replace the irreplaceable. Too many sloppy goals were conceded against the likes of Roma, Watford and Crystal Palace.
But Kante returned in the first week of November and Chelsea defeated Manchester United, West Brom and Qarabag, keeping clean sheets in all three games.
Suddenly, everything fits. Blue is the colour again. Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata are liberated and scoring, and Marcos Alonso looks like the marauding wing-back of last season. And it's all thanks to the little man in midfield.
Despite his hamstring issues, Kante has averaged 3.4 tackles per game this season. He's behind only Leicester's Wilfred Ndidi (4.1) and Everton's Idrissa Gueye (3.8), but expect that figure to rise after a lively affair at Anfield.
In fact, Conte will probably take no chances. Against West Brom last week, Kante completed a central midfield triangle that included Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas.
Chelsea's rearguard is resolute once more, offering the kind of consistency and durability that the Liverpool faithful must privately envy.
Conte even took Kante off after 75 minutes against Qarabag with the midfield in control and the points secure, job done.
It will now be the task of Philippe Coutinho to navigate a route around Kante, which is rather like those colonial explorers trying to sail around the treacherous Cape Horn.
Many fine men have already foundered and hit the rocks.
Liverpool's problems may end in defence but they begin in central midfield, where they will find a feisty Frenchman waiting for them.
Whether Kante has become the best defensive midfielder in the world is a moot point. At Anfield, he'll be the only defensive midfielder.