Is RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku the man to stop Bayern Munich?
Christopher Nkunku enjoyed a career-best season in 2021/22. Is RB Leipzig's resident game-changer the man to wrest the Bundesliga title away from Bayern Munich in the new campaign?
It won't be easy. The Bavarians are the proud record champions of a division they have dominated for the past 10 seasons. Yet if there is one man who could scupper Bayern's hopes of making it 11 Meisterschalen in a row, it's Leipzig's energetic No. 18 who is such a potent attacking force, it can sometimes appear as though he's filling the roles of two players.
"He turns tight games in our favour with his goals and his assists; that's hugely important for us and for the fans," Leipzig's young coach, Domenico Tedesco, said of Nkunku after the man from the Parisian suburbs penned a new deal at the Saxony-based side in the summer.
Laying down a marker for the new season with late July's Supercup success, Bayern appeared to put Leipzig to the sword as the DFB Cup winners wilted in a draining first half. However, the Red Bull Arena was awoken by Die Roten Bullen's second half response that saw Julian Nagelsmann's charges at one point chasing their opponents.
A 4-1 deficit was reduced to 4-3, with Nkunku among the goals as Leipzig surged for an unlikely equaliser. "We were closer to scoring the goal to make it 4-4 than Bayern were to scoring theirs to make it 5-3," Tedesco noted afterwards.
Despite Bayern finishing off their opponents with a breakaway goal, there was enough amid the excitement of the season curtain raiser to fill Nkunku and Co. with the required belief they can gain revenge when the teams meet again in the Bundesliga.
Of course, Leipzig will also need to be consistently up for the challenges they will face week in week out in the top flight in 2022/23, which is why retaining Nkunku was crucial to their cause. In 94 Bundesliga games for the division's youngest side, the 24-year-old has scored 31 goals and assisted 37 times. He was joint-fourth on last season's top scorer charts with 20 goals while with 15 assists, the Frenchman was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bundesliga royalty: Thomas Müller and Marco Reus.
Watch: Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig's superstar
"He developed incredibly last season," teammate Willi Orban said of Nkunku's Player of the Season-winning performance, in quotes appearing on Leipzig's website. "He's always been very mature. It was a great sign from him that he decided to stay in Leipzig despite a number of offers from top clubs – we’re all really happy about that. This should be the next step for him personally as he takes more responsibility both on and off the pitch."
Coach Tedesco agreed, adding, "Christo is staying when he could have left, let’s make no bones about that. His contract extension is a real sign of intent."
It won't all be down to Nkunku in terms of producing the goods for Leipzig this term, of course. As the forward put it on receiving his Player of the Season gong last May, "[Last season's] numbers look outstanding but in the end it was a team performance. The lads helped me a lot. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to notch any goals or assists."
The likes of David Raum, recently signed from Hoffenheim and a superb assister himself, Dominik Szoboszlai, Dani Olmo, Andre Silva and even team veterans Emil Forsberg and Yussuf Poulsen (currently recovering from injury) will all be required to bring their attacking best. It is Nkunku, though, who will surely be at the heart of any Leipzig title charge.
Last season, the former Paris Saint-Germain player was involved in 55 goals, the most ever of any Leipzig player in a single campaign, with former club favourite Timo Werner's previous best of 47 beaten by a solid distance. When Nkunku is on fire, as is the case more often than not, Leipzig are capable of beating anyone.
Yet if this is to be their season and they are to add a first Bundesliga title to last season's maiden DFB Cup win, Tedesco's men will need to improve on their record against championship favourites Bayern. In 15 meetings between the teams, Leipzig have won just once, namely a 2-1 triumph at home on 18 March 2018, when Naby Keita and Werner were on target for the hosts. Whatever happens, it's set to be an exciting spectacle, with 50 goals scored between the teams across those 15 games, suggesting we're in for a monumental battle in a rivalry that is growing by the season.
Watch: Nkunku - thrills and skills
"I want a season after which we can all be proud of ourselves and where we wouldn’t change anything," Nkunku explained. "We have the chance to build on last season and to win more titles. You can feel that spirit within the team. We want to take our chances to win a title in every competition [and] I’m happy to be part of this strong team spirit," the player capped six times for France added. "I can’t say whether we’re good enough to win the league but we will be in the hunt and we will give it our best shot."
In what will feel like a warning shot to defenders across the Bundesliga, Nkunku admits that he still has room for improvement, something he is working hard on every day. "I prefer to use my free afternoons to get back out on the pitch," he said. "I’m on the right track to keep improving. I still don’t see my work here as finished," he added. "I feel right at home in this city and at this club."
With the Bundesliga's Player of the Season intent on raising his level through the roof, this might just be Leipzig's year.
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