Aouar and Pepe the latest young talents to emerge in France
By JEROME PUGMIRE
PARIS (AP) The French league has long had a reputation for producing some of the soccer stars of tomorrow. They learn their trade in flourishing French academies before rising to prominence in bigger European leagues.
And two more are thriving this season - Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar and Lille striker Nicolas Pepe.
Both scored for their clubs on Sunday to further cement their burgeoning reputations.
Lyon's prolific academy is one of the best in Europe, with the likes of Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich) and Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) all coming through the club's youth ranks before being sold for considerable sums.
Because Lyon trusts its young players, they get games early on and their talent quickly develops.
Now Aaour, who has credited Lacazette for helping him settle in at a young age, could be the next big thing out of Lyon.
The 20-year-old Aouar has netted six times this season, matching his tally from last season despite having played half as many games.
Last month, the British media rumor mill went into overdrive after Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola lavished praise on Aouar after he had an outstanding game when the teams drew 2-2 in the Champions League.
Guardiola stopped to talk with Aouar after the match, during which Aouar competed on an even keel with the vastly more experienced City midfielder David Silva. In that game, Silva and fellow midfielder Fernandinho at times seemed startled by the sheer audacity and confidence shown by Aouar.
"Houssem Aouar is a very good player, he is incredible," Guardiola said at the time. "He's always very calm with the ball at his feet, with an excellent technical quality."
Despite his slight build, Aouar is a decent tackler who also withstands challenges well.
His primary qualities are technique and vision.
Exquisite ball control allows him to play very quickly yet tidily, and he tries to turn and face the opposition whenever he gets the ball. He is rarely with his back to play for long and can send rapid passes into danger zones.
Aouar is also able to place shots without using too much power, picking his spot and gliding the ball into the corner.
Lille will have a fight on its hands to keep Nicolas Pepe in the next transfer window, given how well the Ivory Coast forward is playing.
But selling him would doubtless hinder Lille's chances of finishing second and qualifying automatically for next season's Champions League.
It's a decision the club will need to weigh up carefully.
The 23-year-old forward scored one of the goals of the season as Lille underlined its credentials for second place with a 3-2 win at Nimes on Sunday.
Pepe started and finished the second-half move. After showing great awareness to deftly flick the ball to a teammate with his heel, Pepe collected the return pass and launched a 60-meter run which saw him leave opponents in his wake before concluding with a rasping low drive.
He has it all - pace, power, balance, and a clinical eye for goal. His playing style is reminiscent of recently retired countryman Didier Drogba, who showed similar attributes when playing up front for Guingamp from 2002-3 before earning a move to Marseille and then Chelsea.
Pepe is joint top scorer with Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe on 12 goals - one clear of PSG's Neymar. Furthermore, Pepe is a provider and has five assists for the second-highest tally in Ligue 1 and level with Neymar.
The French top tier has been long known as a selling league, usually unable to match much higher wages on offer, notably in England and Spain.
Lille would make a big profit selling Pepe, who was playing in the third division for Orleans before joining Lille from unheralded Angers in the summer of 2017.
But doing so in January, when Lille has something big to play for, would send the wrong message about the ambition of French clubs.
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Updated December 16, 2018