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Can Nicolas Pepe and Lille delay inevitable Paris Saint-Germain coronation?

1:35 AM GMT+4 14/04/2019
Nicolas Pepe Yassine Benzia Lille Metz Ligue 1 28042018
The Ivory Coast international’s recent return to form has given the Great Danes hope of stalling the league leaders’ title celebrations

In football, a whole lot can change in a year. Leicester City went from narrowly beating the drop in 2014/15 to claiming the Premier League the following year, while Chelsea went from title winners to finishing 10th in the Foxes’ title-winning campaign.

For LOSC Lille, the complete turnaround in the last 12 months has been nothing short of remarkable. Following a disastrous 2017/18 season where the Great Danes ended in 17th, avoiding the relegation playoffs by a small margin, their rise to second this term has been outstanding.

In all fairness, the inception of last season’s slump can be traced to the 2014/15 campaign that saw Rene Girard depart after a modest eight-place finish. Herve Renard replaced the Montpellier title-winning manager, but was dismissed after six months following Lille’s atrocious start as they took a meagre 13 points from as many games.

After initially struggling, his replacement Frederic Antonetti guided them from a lowly 17th to fifth in 2015/16.

However, it was only a false dawn, given subsequent events that ensued: Antonetti was sacked in November 2016 with Lille languishing in the bottom three, having been knocked out of the Europa League’s third qualifying round.

The pair of interim boss Patrick Collot and Franck Passi steered Les Dogues to a respectable mid-table finish, before Marcelo Bielsa’s ill-fated spell at the start of last season.

The legendary Argentine opted to alienate and let go of several experienced heads, Vincent Enyeama and Rio Mavuba respectively, in an attempt to give the side a more youthful look. His departure in December 2017 saw incumbent Christophe Galtier take the reins and eventually guide them to safety… just.

While Bielsa’s reign will be remembered for the cascade of gaffes, the decision to purchase Nicolas Pepe has proven to be one of the better choices of an error-strewn regime.

Hitherto not one to thrive in getting high number of goals and assists – he scored three times for Angers, in addition to the seven he scored on loan at Orleans in 29 games – his contribution since moving from Angers has been stunning.

The left-footed wideman was one of the better players of a disastrous campaign last year, and has kicked on this term, evidenced by surpassing last year’s Ligue 1 tally of 13 goals. The Ivory Coast international has so far netted 18 goals this term, in five games fewer, clearly illustrating an improvement in productivity.

Predictably, his performances have been noticed all over Europe with the continent’s top sides looking to end his two-year stay in the French Flanders. On a personal front, it’ll be amazing for Pepe to take another upward step with a move, but Lille might be dreading the attacker’s potential departure given how essential he’s been in their rise this season.

Recent campaigns have been topsy-turvy and the loss of someone who’s contributed a large chunk will definitely be felt. A little taste of what Galtier’s side will pass through as regards transition has been noticeable in recent weeks with Pepe going off the boil.

Having hit 15 goals between August and January, the wideman has only managed to score three times in the last two months. It’s told in Lille’s performances, which dropped a notch in February and most of March. Two of the Ivorian’s recent three strikes have come in the last four games, though, which suggests a return to form could be in the offing.

The timing couldn’t be more ideal either, with Paris Saint-Germain set to visit Stade Pierre-Mauroy this weekend.

Following failure to dispatch Strasbourg last time out as it ended 2-2, Thomas Tuchel’s side could claim an eighth French title at the second time of asking.

While it hasn’t been much of a title race owing to PSG’s amazing domestic form this term, stopping the Parisiens from sealing the league against them should motivate the home side on Sunday. With Tuchel’s severely undermanned squad only needing a draw, Pepe’s recent return to form could rouse them in stalling the inevitable...for another week at least.

Having failed to triumph in this fixture since a 2-1 win in April 2012, a title procession is expected after 90 minutes on Sunday, and it will be out to their nearest challengers – albeit by 20 points – to rain on the leaders’ parade.

Pepe seems to have outgrown Lille and could be on his way in the summer, but will the likely-to-depart forward be able to have one final say in the title race?