Christopher Nkunku reminiscent of Blaise Matuidi as his star rises at PSG
Although he was an unused substitute in Paris Saint-Germain's 1-0 victory at Stade Rennais last Saturday, the tail end of 2016 and the start of 2017 have seen midfielder Christopher Nkunku take great strides with the French champions.
The capital club's No. 24 has scored twice already this year, once in a mid-season friendly against Club Africain and then again in the 7-0 Coupe de France thrashing of SC Bastia, his maiden senior goal. He also notched an assist in a 3-1 Coupe de la Ligue win over Lille OSC back in December.
Speaking with PSG's official club website, Nkunku admitted that the past few weeks have been a whirlwind experience for him -- particularly his first goal in front of his family at Parc des Princes, which was a sweet strike from outside the box to make it 3-0 against Bastia.
"I was very happy to score against Club Africain during the training camp in Tunisia, even if it was a friendly," said the France Under-20 international. "Then against Bastia, I thought I had scored a goal but it was ruled out.
"So, in the second half, I finally got my first goal in a competitive game. I was so happy, especially as my family, my parents, were there to see me play for the first time at the Parc des Princes -- it was a great moment."
Hailing from Lagny-sur-Marne and a member of Les Parisiens' fruitful youth academy since 2010, Nkunku is similar to Blaise Matuidi in his all-action approach, but has already displayed the potential to eventually surpass his older and more experienced teammate.
The 19-year-old entered the scene at senior level last season when then coach Laurent Blanc handed him a few minutes at the end of a 2-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk in the final match of the UEFA Champions League group stage. The youngster had actually already caught the eye in a few preseason friendlies before then, but had not been handed a competitive opportunity until Shakhtar came to town.
Nkunku was impressive for the Ligue 1 giants in their run to the UEFA Youth League final last campaign and in that cameo against Shakhtar, showing Le President enough maturity to be handed a few more opportunities over the second half of term.
However, this summer's change in coach from Blanc to current incumbent Unai Emery meant Nkunku had to start from scratch and impress all over again. He has now done that, but admitted it took time for the squad to adapt to their new manager and for the 45-year-old tactician to cast an eye over PSG's brightest young talents.
"At the start of the season, the coach had just arrived and knew the senior players but of course he did not know us youngsters quite so well," said Nkunku. "I knew I would have an opportunity and my chance would come sooner or later. So, I kept on working and tried to take the opportunities that presented themselves."
Nkunku was right; his chance did come. However, it was unexpected and the footballer had probably been considering pushing for a loan move like fellow homegrown gem Nanitamo Jonathan Ikone -- who recently joined Montpellier HSC until the end of the campaign -- until a run of matches in late 2016.
Although his teammates might not have looked their best against the likes of Montpellier and EA Guingamp, Nkunku always gave it his all whether he was in his preferred left-sided centre-midfield role or wide on the left of the front three. It did not go unnoticed.
His goals against Club Africain and Bastia were no less than Nkunku deserved for some encouraging efforts and he is now looking forward to the second half of the term with renewed optimism after showing Emery he has another midfield option that cannot be overlooked.
"Personally, I am going to keep on working, take my opportunities and do my best -- it is as simple as that," he added. "Regarding the team, we are getting stronger. We have not conceded a goal in 2017 and we have scored 13. We are going to do great things this season.
Like Adrien Rabiot, Alphonse Areola and Presnel Kimpembe before him, Nkunku has had no trouble stepping up from the Camp des Loges to the big time at Parc des Princes.
He now looks like the next Parisien starlet capable of breaking into the squad, possibly the starting XI in time, and he admitted his rise through the ranks has been almost too good to be true.
"It is great to play at Parc des Princes!" he marvelled. "You leave the youth academy and you find yourself there, in the stadium, with great players, in front of our fans. We work every day for that. So when you are on the pitch with players who have also come through the youth academy, such as Jonathan [Ikone], it is incredible.
"When we came to watch Champions League games with the rest of the youth academy not such a long time ago, I watched the midfielders to try to garner some information and reproduce that in training.
"We were all dreaming of playing in those games. So, to find myself on the pitch is incredible!"
Nkunku has yet to feature in the Champions League so far this season, although he was on the bench for the 2-2 draw away at Arsenal. If he can keep the pressure on Emery over the next few weeks, though, he could feature in one or both of PSG's last-16 clashes with the mighty Barcelona.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.