France midfielder N’Golo Kante brings Chelsea “something no one else can”, according to coach Thomas Tuchel, despite the World Cup winner’s ongoing struggles to deliver consistently at Stamford Bridge this season.

The playmaker has been blighted by a succession of off-field issues, including injury problems and bouts of COVID-19, leaving him below the heights that has seen him steer club and country to some of the biggest prizes in the game.

But speaking ahead of his side’s Premier League trip to Southampton this weekend, Tuchel has firmly defended him, suggesting that the player has tricks up his sleeve that no other star could replicate.

“He gives the team something no one else can,” said the German. “He’s struggled this season with consistency due to injury and COVID and that’s also a reason for our inconsistency. We have missed him for so many matches.

Tuchel was also asked if Kante’s observance of Ramadan may have had a knock-on result.

“It’s not the first time he has done it,” he said. “He’s used to it, but if you don’t drink or eat for many days, that can have an effect.

“If you compare how much of an influence he had in the last campaign against Real with Wednesday, then maybe he is not at his highest level. But this is nothing to be ashamed of or feel sorry for – we try to push him and help him on the pitch.”

Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, meanwhile, is not taking the Blues’ lack of recent form for granted and believes that his side must be at the top of their game if they hope to take a result at St Mary’s Stadium.

“The better the opponent, the more flexible you have to be,” he said. “That’s the only way you have any chance to win it. It’s always good when you have the whole week to look at your sessions, concentrate on what we do well and find solutions to do other things better.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Southampton – James Ward-Prowse

The England international continues to push for a place on the plane to Qatar 2022, if only for his set-piece skills if nothing else. He scored his 13th direct free-kick goal in the Premier League last time out against Leeds, with only David Beckham having scored more in the competition, with 18.

Chelsea – Antonio Rudiger

The German defender’s future at Stamford Bridge may remain up in the air, but he has nevertheless maintained his position as a crucial rearguard performer for the Blues this term. Though he has endured a tough few games in recent weeks, his superb long-distance strike against Brentford made him the seventh different club player to score from outside the box this season.

KEY OPTA FACTS

– Southampton have won just one of their last 12 Premier League games against Chelsea (D3 L8), winning 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in December 2019.

– Chelsea have lost just one of their 13 Premier League games at St Mary’s Stadium against Southampton (W9 D3) and are unbeaten in their last eight visits since a 2-1 loss in March 2013.

– Southampton have lost their last two home Premier League matches, as many as in their previous 18 at St Mary’s (W8 D8). The Saints last lost three in a row at home in January/February 2021.

– Chelsea suffered a 4-1 home defeat against Brentford in their last Premier League game but have never suffered consecutive league defeats under Thomas Tuchel, last doing so in December 2020 under Frank Lampard. Tuchel has managed the most Premier League matches without losing consecutive games in the history of the competition (48).

– Chelsea have scored first in their last seven Premier League matches, their longest run since September – November 2019 (also seven), scoring first in the second half in five of their last seven games. However, in their 4-1 defeat to Brentford they became the first team in Premier League history to score first in the second half and lose by a three-goal margin.