Christopher Nkunku and Randal Kolo Muani: the French attackers flourishing in Leipzig and Frankfurt
RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt go head-to-head on Matchday 22 - with French duo Christopher Nkunku and Randal Kolo Muani capable of making all the difference in the race for a top-four finish.
Nkunku is the reigning Bundesliga Player of the Season, and the 25-year-old was in sensational form again this term before a knee problem checked his progress. The incisive attacker picked up the injury in November while training with France ahead of the World Cup - and only returned to training earlier this month.
The Paris Saint-Germain academy graduate was finally unleashed again on Matchday 21, and Leipzig star was quickly up to speed as he laid on Konrad Laimer's effort in the 3-0 win over Wolfsburg.
Nkunku was on a run of seven goals in seven games before the World Cup break, after all, which included a crucial strike in a famous 3-2 win over Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League group stage. In total he has scored 17 times this season, including a 12-goal haul in the Bundesliga.
Watch: All of Nkunku's goals in 2022
"There are not many players in the world that are as talented as he is," Leipzig boss Marco Rose said ahead of Nkunku's long-awaited return in the victory at Wolfsburg. "Christo does things that you can't expect because he's an impact player and immensely talented… He's got a good feel for when to make a run and can carry the ball into those one-v-one situations. He adds a lot to our game, and his absence has been felt by all of us."
Nkunku's misfortune in the autumn was an opportunity for Kolo Muani. The latter's eye-catching performances in his first few months in Frankfurt had helped the summer signing from Nantes earn his first senior caps for France in September 2022.
So when Nkunku was ruled out of the World Cup through injury, Kolo Muani - with eight goals and 11 assists in 23 appearances in all competitions by that stage - was the obvious choice to replace him in the squad.
The 24-year-old had fired Frankfurt to the last 16 of the Champions League with his winner in Lisbon against Sporting, and he would soon make his mark in Qatar too. Kolo Muani made three appearances at the World Cup, coming off the bench to get the clinching second goal against Morocco in the semi-final.
Watch: What makes Kolo Muani so good?
He played his part in France's stirring comeback from 2-0 down in the final too, sent on late in the first half and winning a penalty in the second period before scoring from the spot in a shootout.
He was also inches away from getting a last-gasp winner for France in extra-time - only to be denied by a stunning save from Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
Far from knocking Kolo Muani's confidence, however, that final disappointment only seems to have emboldened Eintracht's No. 9 further. A cup winner in France last season, he got his first double in German football in a 3-0 win over Hertha Berlin earlier this month. In his next match he struck twice again to help the Eagles get past Darmstadt and reach the last eight of the DFB Cup. His latest effort, that helped see off Werder Bremen - took his current scoring streak in all competitions for Eintracht to nine goals in as many matches.
"The World Cup has brought more out of him in terms of his self-confidence and self-understanding," Eintracht head coach Oliver Glasner had told German sports magazine kicker during the Eagles' winter training camp in January.
While it was a case of what might have been for Nkunku and Kolo Muani as regards the World Cup, the possibilities ahead of both players are endless. The pair seem certain to feature regularly for France - throw in PSG's Kylian Mbappe and the two-time world champions sure have a handy strikeforce - and they will also have a major say in where their clubs end up.
While Nkunku will try to beat Manchester City in the Champions League last 16 and Kolo Muani is up against Napoli, both attackers will be keen to ensure their teams return to that competition next season.
Winning this year's edition would be one way of doing so, but a more straightforward route is to finish in the top four of the Bundesliga. And with 13 league matches to go, confrontations against a direct rival are becoming all the more important.
Frankfurt won the first meeting of the sides on Matchday 5 in September, with Kolo Muani contributing with two assists as Nkunku was kept quiet in a 4-0 success.
Watch: See how Eintracht beat Leipzig on Matchday 5
Nkunku - who had an astounding 20 goals and 13 assists in last season's Bundesliga - is no doubt chomping at the bit to get back to his best. A DFB Cup winner with Leipzig in 2021/22, he was mostly watching from the stands while Kolo Muani has effortlessly taken his season tally to 10 goals and a further 10 assists in the league alone.
Glasner recently told bundesliga.com that the Eagles have been pleasantly surprised by the speed of their forward's development.
"We saw instantly that he was really quick," the former Wolfsburg coach explained. "He listens and tries things on the pitch - plus he's a great boy.
"He's not 17 anymore - he's  so he's at a good footballing age.
"It's not that surprising that he is so able. That he's playing such a crucial, formative role, on the other hand, perhaps is… but he deserves that due to his performances."
Neutral observers have also been seriously impressed by a man that stepped into the limelight during Nkunku's absence through injury.
"I've been really excited by his performances throughout the whole season," Bundesliga legend Lothar Mätthaus told Sky Germany after Kolo Muani scored in a 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich in late January. "He plays with joy, self-confidence and at a great tempo… good dribbles, good finishes, good final passes to his teammates… he's a real asset for the Bundesliga."
Both Kolo Muani and Nkunku are a major asset for their clubs as well - particularly at this stage of the campaign. With the sides currently separated by just the single point, Leipzig and Frankfurt's key men will be determined to deliver when it matters on Saturday evening. And delivering top performances is something we've become accustomed to when it comes to two of Europe's most electrifying players.
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