Ligue 1 Player to Watch out for: Youcef Atal - OGC Nice Defender Making Waves
OGC Nice right-back Youcef Atal may have burst into the headlines in Week 34 when his hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Guingamp revived hopes of a European finish, but the Algerian international has been making waves all season long…
It has been something of a transitional season for OGC Nice in the 2018-19 campaign. After Lucien Favre brought the club some much longed-for success, successor Patrick Vieira has had to contend with the departure of star striker Mario Balotelli and a mid-season change of club president.
One of the factors that has helped the club through this period has been the revelation of Youcef Atal, the mercurial right-back with an eye for goal who has made clubs across Europe - including Chelsea, Tottenham, Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid - sit up and take notice with some electrifying displays.
Not the least of which was his stunning turn against Guingamp when, asked by Vieira to play on the left wing, the 22-year-old hit goal after goal after goal to bag the first Ligue 1 Conforama hat-trick by an Algerian national and keep his side's slim hopes of a fourth-placed finish - and the UEFA Europa League place that goes with it - alive.
But who is the man behind the hype? Read on…
All about Youcef Atal
Back story: Born in Mechtras in northern Algeria in 1996, Atal began playing for clubs in the Algiers and Kabylie areas before joining the youth academy of Paradou AC, which also produced Stade Rennais's Coupe de France-winning defender Rami Benseabaini.
It was at the then-second division club that Atal switched from being a winger to a full-back, and his hard work paid off with promotion to the senior team within one season.
After 55 senior appearances (seven goals) with Paradou, Atal was scooped up by Belgian side KV Courtrai on loan.
An eye injury sustained on international duty with Algeria in June 2017 - his call-up to Les Fennecs came just before his move to Europe - limited him to just ten appearance for Courtrai, but the club nonetheless exercised their option to buy before selling him on to OGC Nice for a reported €3m in the summer of 2018.
The youngster has gone from strength to strength under Vieira's orders, making 26 appearances in the current campaign and, after his star turn against Guingamp, topping the club's scoring chart with six goals.
He has also been nominated for the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé, an award for the best African-born player in Ligue 1 Conforama.
Although Atal's market value is now estimated at somewhere in the vicinity of €40m, Nice's technical director Gilles Grimandi says the club won't be letting the sought-after young gun - who is under contract through to 2023 - go in the summer.
During the 2018-19 season, the electrifying wide man has also thrived with Algeria, scoring his first international goal in stunning fashion against Togo to help his side top AFCON qualifying Group D and clinch a place at the finals in Egypt in June/July this year.
More about Youcef Atal
Style of play: The ambidextrous and versatile Atal has pace to burn, not to mention dizzying on-ball skills, but according to coach Patrick Vieira, this isn't what sets him apart - it's his mentality:
"This team allows him to express himself and to show his talent, but what Atal has over the others is his desire to get into the box."
Vieira isn't he only one to prize Atal for his aggression, work rate and never-say-die attitude - this is the quality that convinced Paradou to sign him as an 18-year-old.
Current campaign: Atal has wowed with his flair, consistency and versatility. In 25 appearances (21 starts), he has racked up six goals, five of which have come in the second half of the season and all of which have been scored when the youngster was playing as a winger rather than is customary full-back role.
What you didn't know: Atal is the first Algerian player ever to be called up to the national team - Les Fennecs - while plying his trade for a club in the country's second division.
Best goal: Although Atal's goals all tend to have something of the spectacular about them, his first strike against Guingamp takes the cake.
Just nine minutes into a match in which he was playing in a new position on the opposite side of the pitch - against a side battling for their survival - Atal had the positional nous to ghost in at the far post before unleashing a sublime first-time volley with his less-favoured foot that beat the 'keeper at his far post.
What Youcef Atal said:
"My motivation and concentration have helped me to have a good start to the campaign, and I hope carry that on to the end and have a fantastic season.
"I want to improve all the time - that's the objective I set myself and I work hard to achieve it. I try to improve every single day. I give everything I have all the time; that's my style of play.
"It's a way of repaying the club for the faith they have shown in me. This is my second season in Europe, and although I didn't play much last year, I have been playing regularly this time around and I am making progress.
"Since the beginning of the season, I have learnt how to better pace myself. But I can always keep improving."
- Youcef Atal, talking to OGC Nice's official website in January 2019
What they said about Youcef Atal:
"He has progressed because he has worked tremendously. His goals have shown his aggressiveness to get into good areas to score. He has a good mentality and work ethic and the hard work has paid off."
- Patrick Vieira, OGC Nice coach
"He's an electric player. He was confident after his first goal and he was very difficult to counter."
- Jocelyn Gourvennec, EA Guingamp coach
"He won't move next season."
- Gilles Grimandi, OGC Nice technical director