Pepe’s rise: From fighting relegation to Ligue 1’s new star

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              FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 file photo, Lille's Nicolas Pepe, center, controls the ball during the French League One soccer match against Nantes at the Lille Metropole stadium, in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France.  Lille forward Nicolas Pepe is the French league’s new sensation, and he knows his status has changed because of the way defenders react to him. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler, FILE)
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PARIS (AP) — Lille forward Nicolas Pepe can tell by the way opponents react to him these days that his status in the French league has changed dramatically over the last year.

“It’s in the attitude of defenders that I can see I’ve taken on a new dimension,” Pepe said. “Some of those I’ve played before don’t act the same way. … Some of them fear me, I can feel it.”

And for good reason.

When Pepe receives the ball and turns toward goal in blur of lightning speed, technical precision and athletic strength, he’ll usually have two or three of those defenders chasing him. And more often than not, it still isn’t enough to stop him once he’s in full flow.

The grace, fluidity and power of his running could be compared to Olympic 400-meter great Michael Johnson for its effortless technique. And his finishing ability, whether from outside the penalty area or from close range, is becoming increasingly clinical.

Pepe’s tally of 16 goals puts him level with Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani, two behind PSG’s Kylian Mbappe at the top of Ligue 1’s scoring charts. His eight assists have only been matched by PSG winger Angel Di Maria.

And the 23-year-old Ivorian is doing it despite not playing as a central striker, but operating as a roaming winger cutting in from the right on his left foot. In fact, he was even a goalkeeper during his early teens living in the Paris suburbs.

No wonder most people expect him to be playing for a much bigger club next season. However, Lille has fixed his transfer price at a minimum of 80 million euros ($91 million).

Pepe initially made a name for himself by helping Lille escape relegation last season, and his emergence as a major star is one of the main reasons why the team looks completely transformed this campaign. The northern-French club is in second place this season and chasing automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

“In terms of Ligue 1, he’s just behind Neymar and Mbappe,” Lille coach Christophe Galtier said.

Pepe’s move to Lille happened after he was spotted by Luis Campos, the club’s sporting director who previously worked with Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid and had a three-year stint as Monaco’s technical director.

The well-connected Campos oversaw the arrival of several promising young players at Monaco, including attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva, who is now starring for Manchester City. Those players formed part of Monaco’s stylish title-winning side of 2017.

Campos also worked with Mbappe during the forward’s formative years at Monaco, so he has rock-solid credentials for discovering talent.

“When I was at Real Madrid, even when the team wasn’t playing well, I knew that Cristiano Ronaldo could dribble, shoot, or score at any moment and change the course of match,” Campos told France Football magazine. “It was the same in Monaco with Mbappe, and now it’s the same in Lille with Pepe.”

It has been a meteoric rise for a player who only scored three goals in 33 games for Angers in Ligue 1 two seasons ago, and who was spotted by chance.

After leaving Monaco, Campos was between jobs when he noticed Pepe playing for Angers away at Rennes in November of 2016 — having gone there to watch a Rennes player. When he was hired by Lille, Campos quickly recommended Pepe to then-coach Marcelo Bielsa as his No. 1 target and Pepe was signed in the summer of 2017.

But during the first half of last season, he netted only four times and doubts were raised. Although he scored more regularly after the mid-season winter break, relegation seemed increasingly certain for Galtier’s struggling side. It was acutely embarrassing for Lille, which had invested heavily in players and publicly targeted a Champions League position.

One sunny May afternoon, Pepe changed Lille’s destiny, and his own, by scoring twice in a must-win 3-2 victory at Toulouse. The first was an exquisite, improvised flick; the second an 82nd-minute winner with a well-timed run from deep which has become his hallmark.

It helped Lille narrowly avoid relegation by finishing 17th, and was the making of him as a big-game player.

He has not looked back since.