COMMENT By Kunle Fayiga Follow on Twitter
Since LOSC Lille won the Ligue 1 title back in 2011, they’ve been on a downward spiral. Last season was one of their worst as they finished in 17th place, just one point from the relegation-playoff spot.
One would think more misery awaited them for the current campaign, but surprisingly they have started with a bang.
Indeed, the Hauts-de-France based outfit have recorded eight wins from 12 league games to currently sit in second place on the log, behind obvious leaders Paris Saint-Germain.
One man who has been the dominant force for Les Dogues is Nicolas Pepe. The Ivorian international has had a hand in 15 goals (eight goals, seven assists) in all 12 top-flight games so far and that’s a pretty fascinating stat for a man who is predominantly a right-winger.
The highlight was his hat-trick in the 3-2 away win at Amiens on September 15, 2018, although he did net the consolation goal on Friday as Lille fell to a 2-1 defeat at PSG.
Only Cristiano Ronaldo (26) has had more shots on target in Europe's top five leagues than Nicolas Pepe this season (21).
Player profile -- https://t.co/eyJ610YOEt pic.twitter.com/6sMjiWW9X7 — WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) October 19, 2018
He won the Ligue 1 Player of the Month for September, becoming the first African to win the individual award since ex-Lille attacker Sofiane Boufal in April 2016.
Indeed, with this fine form, Pepe looks poised to surpass his haul of 13 Ligue 1 goals last season.
It is difficult for such displays to go unnoticed and the Mantes-la-Jolie-born player has caught the eyes of many suitors. The likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have all been rumoured to have interest in the eight-time capped Ivorian.
The Red Devils are in dire need of a natural right-winger, a position that has been a strength for them down the years but utilising the likes of Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Marital – who aren’t natural widemen - has led to inconsistency.
If I'm being honest, Nicolas Pepe might deliver the best package from all of this speculated wingers at the moment.
Raw, but immense potential, affordable, realistic & the left foot we need on the right flank. pic.twitter.com/LUEKrmsFGA — Complaxes (@Complaxes) October 22, 2018
For Bayern, they need replacements for the ageing duo of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, who have a combined 69 years of age. In the case of Arsenal, there is need for more depth in Unai Emery’s ever-improving squad which will be essential in challenging for top honours.
Les Dogues have had fantastic players down the years, from Eden Hazard to Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy, Kevin Mirallas, and not forgetting big African stars like Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Peter Odemwingie among many others.
Ultimately, these players sought pastures new in order to boost their profiles and earnings.
The real battle Lille face is to keep hold of Pepe till the end of the current campaign, as losing their top scorer in January could seriously dent their hopes of reaching the Champions League.
⚽️ Nicolas Pepe is in elite company, having being involved in more goals across Europe’s top 5 leagues than any other player. 👊 [📷 IG:@nicolaspepe19] pic.twitter.com/eQLW4fOXW7 — COPA90 (@COPA90) October 22, 2018
Certainly, a goalscoring display in Friday's defeat by PSG could pique the interest of some of Europe's giants.
Coach Christophe Galtier has insisted that Pepe is not for sale, while the player has stated that he is presently satisfied with life at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
In order to keep him a little longer, the three-time Ligue 1 champions may want to follow the example of RasenBallsport Leipzig, who allowed Naby Keita to sign a pre-contract with Liverpool in the summer of 2017 but didn't move to Anfield until 2018.
Pepe looks happy at Lille at the moment, but should he be keen on a move abroad, Les Dogues should not stand in his way. There are no guarantees that Pepe would take well to being denied a potential move, with Riyad Mahrez's desire to angle for a move away from Leicester City a pertinent recent example.
Lille will definitely profit handsomely from any potential sale of the talented 23-year old to ease some of their financial burdens, but they have the tough job of ensuring the transfer buzz does not affect their form.
Certainly, the forward is destined for bigger and better things.