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Nicolas Pepe vs PSG? Why Arsenal, Man Utd & Barcelona chasing Lille sensation

He's the one player in Ligue 1 defying PSG. No-one from Paris' mega spenders have scored more goals this season. Nor provided more assists. And all from a raw talent who grew up dreaming of being the next Fabien Barthez...

This season, they're all flocking to see him: Nicolas Pepe. Arsenal are in negotiations. The call put into his minders last week. Lille can expect an offer in January from the Londoners. But they're not alone.

At Amiens on Saturday, Arsenal had a representative in the stands. As did Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona. And as far as auditions go, Pepe aced it. A hat-trick. Two from the spot. But still a hat-trick in front of the biggest clubs on the planet.

At the final whistle, the 23 year-old let his teammates do the talking for him. Jose Fonte, the former Southampton captain, has already seen enough. Back to Europe after a short stint in China, Fonte has only worked with Pepe for a matter of weeks, but Saturday's performance came as no surprise - nor the presence of those watching on.

The Portuguese said at the final whistle: "He will play for a big club for sure. He can play for Madrid, Barça and Manchester United. He just needs to go about it calmly."

Christophe Galtier, the LOSC coach, revealed Pepe wasn't even at 100 per cent for the game.

"Pepe wasn't feeling so good, it was uncertain he'd make the game until the eleventh hour," said Galtier. "But he was very good. He created chances for himself and created many situations for his teammates. He also showed a lot of composure with both penalties."

Pepe's four goals this season are a match for PSG's much-vaunted duo Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. And his three assists are equal to PSG winger Angel di Maria's. It's basically Pepe versus PSG so far this term.

But at Olympique Lyon, they still feel the winger should be with them. A €30m fee had been agreed. OL were convinced Pepe was theirs. But as Bruno Genesio admitted only last week, the player just didn't fancy it.

"I have a little regret with Nicolas Pepe," lamented Genesio, "but we had nothing to do with it, as much sportingly as financially, we really tried to do it, as I said.

"But it is important that the player really wants to come to Lyon - and it was not the case for him."

Pepe's approach will be no surprise to Olivier Frapolli, who had the then 20 year-old on a season-long loan with US Orleans.

"He arrived in all humility," recalls Frapolli. "He did not have the bad sides of a youth who explodes suddenly, polluted by an entourage. He was listening, with a good mentality.

"I always knew that his game would take off in L1."

At Orleans, Pepe was on-loan from Angers, where he was taken by Philippe Leclerc, who first became close to the winger when they were together at little Poitiers FC. The pair are still close - and Leclerc's advice is sure to have been sought over the summer.

"I thank him because I owe him a lot," says Pepe. "And he's still calling me today. When I do good things but also when I'm less well. He does not hesitate to tell me off. It is important to be able to count on people in good and difficult times."

Leclerc had been influential in getting Pepe to Poitiers after scouts had spotted him in 'the cages' of Parisian amateurs, FC Solitaires. "I was a goalkeeper," says Pepe. "That's what I wanted to do. Until I was 13..."

Away from under the posts, Pepe's potential was quickly spotted. Solitaires were partners with PSG, but Leclerc's scouts acted quickly to get him to Poitiers. And when he took charge of football matters at Angers, Leclerc made sure Pepe followed him.

Patrice Sauvaget, who was the first at Angers to work with Pepe as reserve-team coach, enthused: "Nicolas can confuse opponents, by his provocative gestures in the game, by his ability to eliminate his opponent, by his speed and quality."

Boulougne assistant coach Serge Le Dizet was with Angers at the time and like Sauvaget quickly recognised Pepe's potential.

"When he arrived, we quickly spotted his talent. He can change a game on his own, either by scoring or by creating goals for others. He is very good in duels, with good ball control."

Goals. Assists. The manner in which Pepe is dominating this season's L1 stats will come as no surprise to Le Dizet.

"He can play centrally, right and left," says Le Dizet. "He has the potential to join a top club of L1, but also to play in England."

Or Spain? In France, Arsenal are regarded as favourites for Pepe. But his raw potential now has Real and Barca taking a closer look. For Galtier and LOSC, they know it's only a matter of time before they lose their star man.

"It's rewarding. But there are also many other clubs, four, five, as far as I know, foreign clubs that are interested and who seek a lot of information," the coach said at the start of the season.

"If as a coach, I had to lose Nicolas, I would be sad. But it's the reality of the transfer window. And this is the career of a footballer. It's rewarding."

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Chris Beattie
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