Arsenal’s €80m target Pepe rivalling Ronaldo & Hazard’s brilliance this season

When it comes to decisive players in Europe’s biggest leagues this season, there are a glut of familiar names leading the way.

Of course, no-one has more goals and assists combined than Barcelona star Lionel Messi’s 45, with Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe the best of the rest with 34.

Eden Hazard of Chelsea (28) and Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo (27) are up there, too, yet neither matches the surprising interloper among such iconic figures: Nicolas Pepe.

With 19 goals and 11 more assists, the 23-year-old attacker has developed into one of Europe’s hottest properties over the course of the last 18 months, having led Lille to an unexpected second place in Ligue 1.

Any doubts over his ability to perform on the big stage were surely brushed aside by his virtuoso performance against PSG last Sunday, which led Mbappe to lament that his side had been made to look like “beginners”.

Pepe might not have been the sole architect of Lille’s incredible 5-1 victory, but there is little doubt that he was chiefly responsible for the humbling of the admittedly threadbare capital side.

He was involved in the build up to the opening goal, drew the foul from Juan Bernat that led to the Spaniard’s first-half dismissal, netted the second and then delivered wicked corner kicks to bring about the fourth and fifth.

“Pepe has a lot of quality with his speed and strength. He’s determined around goal and always dangerous,” PSG boss Thomas Tuchel said prior to the Ivorian dismantling his defence last Sunday, having joked that “he can play for us”.

A dream move is just around the corner, with LOSC willing to part company with a young man who is set to become an icon of their project to act as a finishing school for the game’s up-and-coming talent.

“All clubs are forced to balance their accounts,” Lille owner Gerard Lopez admitted to Canal+ last weekend. “I think we will sell four or five players. The departure of Nicolas Pepe is sure. He has entered a price range that cannot be paid anymore.

“There is a career choice for him to make.”

And he appears set to have his pick of clubs.

His PSG performance sparked a fresh wave of interest in his services, with Lille hoping to push any purchasing club up to a price tag of €80 million (£69m/$90m) for a player they signed from Angers two summers ago for around €10m.

Liverpool are the latest to manifest interest, but they will have to jostle with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and PSG if they are to grab a slice of the latest hot prospect to rise from Ligue 1.

To put his campaign into context, he is on track to challenge the stellar season that Eden Hazard enjoyed before moving to Chelsea in 2012. The Belgian, who was admittedly two years younger, grabbed 20 goals and delivered 15 assists – figures certainly not out of reach for a player who has been tipped as a potential replacement for the 28-year-old in London should he move to Real Madrid.

It’s not necessarily always been like this in Lille, though. Under Marcelo Bielsa, he endured a frustrating start to life at Stade Pierre-Mauroy. He was used through the middle as a centre forward as opposed to his preferred role on the wing, from where he can cut inside and cause danger in a manner reminiscent of Thierry Henry.

He netted 13 goals in his first season with LOSC, but 10 of those arrived in the second half of the season under Galtier, a precursor of the explosion that was to arrive this season.

“Players like him, they’re almost impossible to stop on a good day,” Ivory Coast team-mate Max Gradel said ahead of a reunion with the winger on Sunday when his Toulouse side play host to Lille.

“He’s had an incredible season and I hope he’s not on the same kind of form that he was last Sunday against PSG!”

Pepe’s destination is unlikely to be decided before the end of the season, however. He will want a club that will play Champions League football, just as Lille will surely do, but equally he will want guaranteed game time to prove himself.

 

Source Goal.com
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