All eyes are likely to be on Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar as the UEFA Champions League returns, yet it is former Paris Saint-Germain star Christopher Nkunku who could end up making the headlines as RB Leipzig host his former club at the Red Bull Arena.
Nkunku left the French capital in summer 2019, after almost a decade and 78 senior appearances with PSG. One of his last kicks in Rouge et Bleu was a penalty that soared over the crossbar at the Stade de France, handing Rennes a shootout victory in the French Cup final. One of his first in the red and white of Leipzig was a tap-in against Union Berlin, rounding out a 4-0 win on his Bundesliga debut. The man from Lagny-sur-Marne was off to a perfect start in Germany and two years later, it feels like he has never looked back.
"I needed more game time and I wanted to grow, both as a footballer and a man," he told Kicker on his decision to trade Ligue 1 for the Bundesliga in November 2020, shortly before the second of three meetings with PSG. "I made the right decision."
A few days after making that statement, Nkunku scored the equaliser against his former employers in the Champions League group stage, paving the way for a 2-1 victory at the Red Bull Arena. Both clubs would progress from Group H ahead of Manchester United, although Leipzig were knocked out by Liverpool in the last 16 and PSG were outgunned by Manchester City in the semi-finals.
Leipzig's home victory last November handed them a measure of revenge for their meeting a few months earlier, in the single-legged Champions League semi-final, when PSG ran out 3-0 winners in Lisbon. It was not Nkunku but another Parisian graduate, Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman, who came back to haunt his old club with the winner in the final.
The nine-time French champions reclaimed bragging rights in this emerging rivalry with a narrow 1-0 win at the Parc des Princes in the reverse fixture of last season's group stage, on 24 November 2020. That day, their front three was composed of Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria, with the Brazilian scoring the only goal from the penalty spot. When they meet for the now fifth time on Wednesday, Leipzig will also have to contend with the presence of Messi.
Jesse Marsch's men will no doubt be keeping a very close eye on 'MNM', yet given the state of his recent performances, it is perhaps Nkunku who will represent the biggest goal threat against his boyhood club.
We're only just into November, yet the 23-year-old is already enjoying the most prolific season of his career, with nine goals in 15 outings in all competitions. Not many players can claim to have hit a hat-trick against a Pep Guardiola side, but that's exactly what Nkunku did in Leipzig's barnstorming 6-3 loss to Manchester City on Matchday 1. He also got the opener in a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Club Brugge on Matchday 2.
The Bundesliga has also proven a fertile hunting ground for the firing Frenchman in the last few weeks. Leipzig needed some time to get going under new coach Marsch, but Nkunku took centre stage as they walloped Hertha Berlin 6-0 on Matchday 6. He got the ball rolling with a delightful chip over Alexander Schwolow, then squared unselfishly for Yussuf Poulsen to double the advantage. On the hour mark he won a penalty which Emil Forsberg converted, and capped off a magnificent showing by smashing a free-kick right into the top corner.
Watch: Nkunku, Leipzig's star showman
"It's a lot of fun working with Christo," said an impressed Marsch. "He's still young, but he wants much, much more. As a coach, it's always nice when you speak to a player and he listens to what you're saying, then tries to implement it in his game. All I can say is that this young man has no weaknesses."
A bold claim, but Bochum probably came to the same conclusion when they visited the Red Bull Arena on Matchday 7. The promoted side managed to contain Die Roten Bullen for nearly 70 minutes, but when substitute Andre Silva nodded in from close range, the floodgates opened and Nkunku pounced. The Leipzig No.18 produced another exquisite lofted finish to all but secure the three points, then put the game to bed five minutes later, flashing out his right boot for an audacious lob over Manuel Riemann. Two moments of magic that hinted at a young man brimming with confidence.
Those back-to-back braces took Nkunku to joint-fifth in the Bundesliga scoring charts, on four goals. The only players ahead of him are their team's principal strikers: Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland (9), Bayern's Robert Lewandowski (7), Bayer Leverkusen's Patrik Schick (6) and Union Berlin's Taiwo Awoniyi (6). In all competitions, he's only once goal shy (9) of the combined total of Mbappe (6), Messi (3) and Neymar (1).
"Christopher can play as a box-to-box midfielder, No.10, winger, striker," explained Nkunku's former coach Julian Nagelsmann, now in charge at Bayern. "He's versatile and has real quality in attacking one-on-ones."
Marsch has tinkered with his formation in the early months of the season, but since switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-2-1 – allowing Nkunku to play more centrally in attack, alongside Forsberg and behind Poulsen – Leipzig have really started to motor. The Frenchman has been their main source of goals, but he also contributes in other significant ways. He has provided 20 passes leading to a shot and made a league-high 300 sprints, not to mention tormenting opposition defences with his pace and dribbling, and creating danger with pinpoint set-piece deliveries. As time goes by, he is looking more and more like the complete package.
"Christo is so important for us now," Marsch admitted before the Matchday 8 draw in Freiburg, in which Nkunku won a penalty and struck the woodwork. "I'm happy he's on such good form, that he's become such a key member of the team. I believe he has much more in him. This is just the beginning."
Leipzig and PSG's shared footballing history is so recent that the reverse fixture in Paris marked the first occasion when they played each other with fans in the stadium. Die Roten Bullen were the architects of their own downfall in the French capital but by no means capitulated.
Nkunku was key in Leipzig's attacking endeavours, had the most touches in the opposition box of any player on the pitch, was second for chances created and had the most touches for RB as they mustered up 50 per cent more shots than their hosts. A performance the Parisian faithful will have wished they'd been watching in their own colours.
Nkunku is a player with serious pedigree – and he's on red-hot form. It's not only his finishing that can hurt PSG, but also his ability to set up his teammates. After all, this is a man who had 13 assists in his maiden Bundesliga season, including four in a single half against Schalke.
Though Nkunku will be going up against his compatriot Mbappe once again, he would no doubt love to be reunited with his old teammate in the national squad. He has played for France in every youth category, but has yet to be given his first senior call-up by Didier Deschamps.
"The coach hasn't got in touch yet, but that doesn't matter," Nkunku recently told Sport Bild. "It's a further source of motivation. I'm stringing together good performances with Leipzig, and I know the door to the national team is never closed. If I just keep doing what I'm doing, it should happen sooner or later."
And what better way for Nkunku to catch Deschamps' eye than by putting in a star turn against France's biggest club? Even more so when the chips are down for Leipzig. It's win or bust for them if they're to have any chance of remaining in Europe into the new year - and Nkunku could be the key to them doing so. It's a timely opportunity for the boy from the Paris suburbs to remind his old bosses exactly what they lost when they let another homegrown talent slip through their fingers.
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