Lille manager Christophe Galtier believes their rising star Nicolas Pepe is “just behind” Neymar and Kylian Mbappe on the list of Ligue 1’s top strikers.
Pepe’s tally of 16 goals puts him level with Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani and two behind Mbappe at the top of Ligue 1’s scoring charts. His eight assists have only been matched by PSG winger Angel Di Maria.
“In terms of Ligue 1, he’s just behind Neymar and Mbappe,” Lille coach Christophe Galtier said.
And Pepe said he can tell by the way that he is being marked that his breakout season has defenders in France’s top flight on notice.
“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 the 23-year-old Ivorian, who Lille have put a minimum 80 million price tag on, is doing it despite not playing as a central striker, rather operating as a roaming winger cutting in from the right on his left foot.
Pepe, who was originally spotted by Lille sporting director Luis Campos, 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.
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.”
Pepe had a hand in changing Lille’s destiny last season with two goals — including the winner — in a must-win 3-2 victory at Toulouse on May 6 that helped they avoid relegation. 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.
Lille are in second place this season and chasing automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.