Back to his best: Fekir ready to take Europe by storm after serious injury
When Nabil Fekir struck a magnificent free-kick to secure a 3-2 victory over Monaco last Friday, he did not just do it for his Lyon side, he did it for himself.
The creative midfielder had been surprisingly overlooked by France boss Didier Deschamps ahead of two critical World Cup qualifiers yet responded in glorious style, turning in a man-of-the-match display to lead his side to victory against the defending champions.
As early as the 11th minute, he had a telling influence on the game, setting up former Real Madrid striker Mariano Diaz to score Lyon’s opener. After the visitors hit back, he responded again but his most important contribution was left until last as he swept him from long range with what was virtually the last kick of the ball.
After two uninspiring displays from the national side, Deschamps could not have failed to register the quality that the 24-year-old oozed throughout.
Fekir now has seven goals in just nine Ligue 1 starts this season, plus three assists on top of that.
He is finally starting to realise his undoubted potential after two very difficult years.
On his first France start against Portugal at the end of August 2015, he suffered cruciate ligament damage in his knee, having started the season at an incredible lick. It would cost him his chance to play at Euro 2016, and though he played the entirety of last term, he lacked the sharpness and confidence for much of the campaign that he had shown previously.
In the closing weeks of the season, though, he started to come to life, with his old relationship with Alexandre Lacazette beginning to spark regularly. The pair both came through the club’s youth ranks and enjoyed an incredible understanding before the striker was eventually sold to Arsenal in a deal worth nearly £53 million.
Fekir remained at Parc OL, despite interest from Everton in the summer, and is now blossoming to such an extent that it would be a surprise if he were not to be watched by the likes of the Gunners, who could find themselves in the market for a playmaker come next season.
Certainly, the broad consensus is that he is now playing the best football of his career, with an additional mature edge to his game brought by both his long period on the sidelines and time.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a new Nabil Fekir – it’s the one we knew before his injury but with more maturity,” head coach Bruno Genesio said after watching the midfielder score from the halfway line against Bordeaux. “He’s made every effort to bounce back.
“He’s physically well, better in his head and has regained his best level. Since the start of the season, I feel he’s been completely focussed on the team. If I entrusted him to be captain, it’s because he’s been exemplary on the field and with his behaviour.”
Even the player admits that a little more responsibility on the field has not necessarily been a bad thing for him.
“It’s changed me,” he laughed after the Monaco match. “It’s true that I talk a little more, but I’ve stayed the same.
“I try to encourage and motivate my team-mates. We have a very young team. Although I’m not very old, it’s important to have someone in this role, to encourage and to supervise.
“I give myself 200% on the field for my team-mates, for the fans and for my family. This time it worked.”
Perhaps one of his most impressive traits is to remain modest, despite being such an important cog in the Lyon side. It is certainly a comportment appreciated by Genesio.
“He’s been present since the beginning of the season as a technical leader. He has been decisive,” the coach said.
“But he is also a charismatic leader. I can’t tell you what goes on in the locker room, but he has a great presence.”
Indeed, in a squad that is laced with inconsistent players, Fekir has provided a valuable keystone from which Lyon can build around. How long he will stay at Parc OL, however, is doubtful.
The Rhone side have forged a strong reputation as a selling club in recent seasons and should they receive a sizeable offer for their star man next summer it will prove hard to resist.
One will surely arrive, should Fekir remain in this vein of form, while the international recognition that he so craves must surely follow, too. Deschamps cannot ignore such a talent forever.