When Memphis Depay was offloaded to Lyon in the January transfer window, there seemed about as much chance of him being compared to Pele as there was of a Barcelona comeback from 4-0 down against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Remarkably, though, the 23-year-old Dutchman has made such a big impression in Ligue 1 that he has found his name being mentioned in the same terms of the Brazilian great.
It was, admittedly, largely because of one action – a goal of the most exquisite to cap a 4-0 win over Toulouse on Sunday.
When he gathered possession, he was moving towards the halfway line and away from the target, yet almost on the turn, he sent a lofted shot over the head of promising goalkeeper Alban Lafont and into the visiting net.
“In the first half, I saw that the goalkeeper was often far from his goal,” he told Canal+ after the game. “I kept that in a corner of my mind. I told myself: ‘This is my chance,' and I turned and shot. I didn’t even see the ball go in, but I heard everyone go crazy!”
It was the moment a Ligue 1 star was born.
“I can’t remember what year Pele did it in,” president Jean-Michel Aulas admitted after the game, referring to the Brazilian’s off-target effort against Czechoslovakia in the 1970 World Cup. “In any case, it is a sign of the very highest class and we are very happy.”
A certain David Beckham’s Manchester United career took flight when he scored arguably the most famous goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon in 1996. Memphis repeated the feat, ironically having been picked from the Old Trafford scrapheap.
It was a strike that will be regarded as one of the goals of the season anywhere in world football - and justly so given that it required vision, technical skill and incredible audacity.
Perhaps more importantly for Lyon, though, it was confirmation that their winter signing has fully regained his confidence and is better positioned than ever to realise the potential he was replete with when he signed for Louis van Gaal’s side in 2015 for £25 million from PSV.
The French side were widely ridiculed when they splashed out around £16m – a huge sum for a Ligue 1 club – to sign Memphis from the Red Devils in the January transfer window. Aulas had promised a significant arrival at Parc OL, but the misfiring Dutchman was not the player that fans of Les Gones had wished for.
Good performances at Old Trafford had been sporadic at best, and by the time he was moved out by Jose Mourinho, he had played only 20 minutes of league football since the beginning of the season.
The 23-year-old arrived in France clearly lacking in belief and devoid of match sharpness. Initially, the early signs for Lyon’s investment were not strong. So bereft of quality was Memphis in his initial matches, by the time he featured in the derby against Saint-Etienne in his fourth appearance that he was roundly jeered by the Lyon support for contributing nothing in a derby defeat.
An injury to Mathieu Valbuena four days later proved to be a turning point. The Dutchman had been unsurprisingly axed to the bench after his anonymous display, but presented with the opportunity to come on against lowly Nancy with his side already cruising, he took full advantage.
Early in the second half, he accelerated onto a slick Maxime Gonalons pass down the left channel before sliding the ball through the legs of Sergey Chernik. The club were ridiculed for revealing that the shirt he wore that evening was to be retained in the club museum for safe keeping, but Memphis has not looked back since.
In five subsequent outings, he has found the net four times and fashioned two more goals. Vitally, he has provided head coach Bruno Genesio with another effective component to add to his attacking rotation while he tries to juggle domestic and European commitments.
Unhappily for OL, Memphis is cup tied for the Europa League, in which they head to Rome on Thursday boasting a 4-2 lead from the first leg. In that clash, Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir and Corentin Tolisso all scored memorable goals that highlighted the qualities of Lyon’s attacking potential and also the fact that even now Memphis will have to continue to perform to maintain his place in the side.
“He’s shown us the qualities that we knew he was capable of, rhythm, speed, shooting,” Genesio said after the game. “He must improve in certain things and simplify his play. He got his goal because he saw the goalkeeper was off his line. He had success, of course, but it’s easier to try it at 3-0 than at 0-0 – but knowing him, he’d have done it anyway.”
It might be too early to say a star has been reborn, particularly given the player’s record for inconsistency, but there is no doubt that Memphis is right back on track.