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Rayan Cherki: Lyon's 16-year-old sensation making Europe's biggest clubs take notice

12:00 GMT 14/11/2019
Rayan Cherki NxGn
The attacker is regarded as one of the continent's brightest young talents and has already made his first-team debut for the Ligue 1 side

France has had more than its fair share of teenage prodigies come through the ranks and, as such, is a nation that knows when it has a truly special player on its hands.

Enter 16-year-old Rayan Cherki.

The last time there was this kind of buzz around a young player in Ligue 1, it centred on a certain Kylian Mbappe. In Cherki, Lyon seem to have unearthed a talent who could soon be partnering the Paris Saint-Germain sensation in Les Bleus' bid for titles.

Born in August, 2003 in Pusignan – an eastern suburb of Lyon – he was spotted as a seven-year-old while playing for AS Saint-Priest; the same club at which ex-Lyon captain Nabil Fekir took his first footsteps in the game.

Enrolled into the Lyon academy, he tore his way through the various age-group sides, outclassing boys of his own age with regularity.

A case of knee osteochondritis – a condition that can occur in teenage athletes which stunts their growth somewhat – saw Cherki miss almost a year of action at the age of 13, but once back on the field, he wasted little time in again impressing all those who came across him.

In September 2018, he became the youngest player to score in the UEFA Youth League at the age of just 15 years and 33 days in a 4-1 win over Manchester City, though it is a record he has since lost to Borussia Dortmund's 14-year-old striking phenomenon Youssoufa Moukoko.

Two months later, he scored a five-minute hat-trick for Lyon's Under-17s against Auxerre despite playing two years below his actual age.

Lyon's academy has always been rich in talent – Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, Hatem Ben Arfa and Fekir all came through their ranks – but few have had quite the impact of Cherki at his age.

"He is a boy who invents things all the time. He creates the unexpected and captivates the attention of everyone: team-mates, coaches, opponents, fans," Jean-Baptiste Gregoire, who has coached Cherki throughout his time in the Lyon academy, said in a recent interview.

"But what impresses me the most is his passion for football, his determination and his mind to reach the highest level as fast as possible."

The next step on Cherki's climb up the footballing ladder was a senior debut, which, after an impressive start to the season at youth level, came on October 19 as he stepped off the bench in the 83rd minute of a dull 0-0 draw between Lyon and Dijon.

Club president Jean-Michel Aulas led a standing ovation at Groupama Stadium for the baby-faced playmaker as Cherki's appearance off the bench proved to be the highlight of Rudi Garcia's first match in charge following the sacking of Sylvinho.

"There is no pressure for young players to play. I'm alone in my sporting choices," Garcia insisted when asked whether handing Cherki a debut was a ploy to win over fans who questioned the ex-Roma boss' appointment.

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 "Lyon's training centre is of high quality with talented young players. Cherki is perhaps the headliner of the academy, and he came into play because he is a talented kid.

"We will take it little by little, but if young players can bring something to this group, I would not deprive myself [of them]."

Garcia has since backed up his words by unleashing Cherki for 33 minutes of his side's crucial clash with Marseille ahead of the international break, and it would now seem clear that the teenager will remain part of the first-team picture for the remainder of the campaign.

Quite where he will eventually fit in, however, remains a mystery.

Comfortable across the attacking line as well as behind a central striker as a No.10, Cherki has no defined position as yet, and the next stage of his development will likely see him begin to take on one particular role on the pitch rather than dominating in all areas as he has done as a youth.

His goalscoring record suggests he should be pushed as far forward as possible, and yet he is equally effective when it comes to making the most difficult passes look straightforward.

Described by former Lyon coach Bruno Genesio as "an alien" who is comparable to Ben Arfa in his ability to change a game in the blink of an eye, there is a belief within Lyon that Cherki has the talent to replicate the successes of another former academy graduate, Benzema, as his career develops.

Surprisingly, Benzema's current club, Real Madrid, are not one of Europe's superpowers who have been linked with a move for Cherki, though there are already plenty of other potential suitors.

Manchester United, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Ajax have all reportedly been monitoring Cherki's progress, though Lyon have moved quickly to tie him down to a professional contract that runs through to the end of the 2021-22 season.

Should Cherki continue on his current trajectory, then he will inevitably follow in Benzema's footsteps and move on from Lyon. The key for now is for the teenager to take each and every opportunity he gets among the Ligue 1 outfit's senior ranks.

If he does, then he may well become the next superstar of French football.